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.

The Shadow of Thy Wings by George Merrill

Driving Rt. 50 the other day, I stopped at a traffic light in Cambridge where the McDonald’s is located. The stoplight was affixed to what appeared to be a large round aluminum arm arching across the highway. The arm swayed while gently rising and falling as if riding on the wind.

My gaze wandered.

I saw two birds behaving oddly. One flew back and forth underneath the arm. It seemed at first to be pecking at the under part of it while flying erratically – first diving under the arm and then flapping up and over it, down again, hovering in place while continuing to peck along the arm’s underside. Another bird joined it and soon both birds were engaged in these irregular sorties. It was fascinating to watch. Fortunately, the wait for the red light was substantial so I had time to enjoy their antics while trying to make sense of them. What were they doing?

Occasionally I’ve seen birds behaving oddly at my house. In certain morning light some go for the windows, even though they’ll crash into them and be stopped cold in flight. Some, bruised, might still persist. Sadly, a persistent bird or two may get knocked out when striking the glass or even kill itself. I once watched cardinals as they attacked the rear view mirrors of my parked car. I figured in both cases they were curious about their reflected image.

Waiting at the light I noticed the two bird’s beaks held either string or twigs of some sort. I knew then they were building their home, but the question remained, where? Their erratic flight patterns seemed exploratory, as if they were still checking out real estate and looking for permanent property rather than having already decided. If that were the case, carrying around building materials while still deciding where to build wouldn’t make any sense.

After the light changed, the driver behind me honked to get me moving.  I accelerated slowly taking one last look underneath the traffic light’s arm and sure enough, I saw two small holes along the bottom of the arm. Then I knew the birds had been busy building their new home inside it.

One of them quickly entered a hole.

It’s spring, Easter, a time of hope and a time to build. No better time to birth and raise kids. I felt pleased for the birds. If they have no problem with the relentless traffic moving just below them – imagine summer traffic with folks from D.C. and Baltimore going ‘downee ocean,’ then building inside the traffic arm was probably the most readily accessible, cheapest and the safest building site imaginable.  Overall, a wise choice.

I can’t imagine any snake who would care to go out to eat over a highway where one slip would dispatch him for sure, leaving as his legacy only a dark stain on the highway left in the trail of some SUV. And the same holds for raccoons and other predators whose own lives would be jeopardized by trying to gain access to the bird’s nest underneath the arm’s slippery slopes. I commend these birds for the care and thoughtfulness in providing a safe space for their progeny. My own children tell me that their greatest concern in today’s dangerous world is keeping their children from harm as they grow into adulthood. Today most parents escort their children almost everywhere.

Still there’s one mystery in this scenario I’m not sure I’ve fathomed. The birds had obviously staked out their claim and were in the process of building there. So, why is it they had to fly all over the place first rather than simply homing in directly on the entrance holes to commence building? It’s as if they’d left the site to get building materials and couldn’t remember how to get back. I can’t imagine birds drinking and flying much less under the influence while working on a construction job just above moving traffic.  Does short term memory account for their apparent forgetfulness? Since they’re of childbearing age that makes it very unlikely.

I have read that some birds cannot see directly ahead. One eye sees what’s on the right, but the left eye only the left. Birds must turn their heads to get the whole picture, which also limits depth perception. This might explain why, when birds light anywhere, they’re constantly turning their heads this way and that to gain a clear sense of where they are. They accept their limits and do what they have to.

Birds are remarkably creative, superb craftsmen and environmentally friendly. They can transform the most unlikely places into practical and unobtrusive home sites, like the one I saw at the stop light in Cambridge. They use only recyclable materials in all their home construction. Ever inspected a bird’s nest up close? You’ll find a potpourri of leaves, old cellophane wraps, pine straw, shredded paper, small twigs, yarn, Styrofoam scraps and in one nest I once saw a paper clip – all skillfully woven to create security and comfort for the whole family without harming the environment in any way. Christians believe God does the same thing; takes the world’s throwaways and castoffs and transforms them.

Bird watching is immensely popular. Why, I’ve wondered, is it that nothing quite captures the imagination as watching a bird in flight? Birds have always been a universal symbol for divine messages and the motions of our souls. When the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus, John the Baptist thought it looked like a dove.

Crossing on the Bay Bridge, I have often watched gulls in flight riding effortlessly on wind gusts. Their wings barely move as the birds soar this way and that. They don’t flutter and flap. It’s like some invisible agent had carried the birds aloft, and the birds, finding themselves centered in just the right confluence of forces, let go to be safely borne along by the breath of God. It is a graceful sight.

In a troubled world like ours is today, a psalmist, mindful of birds, once offered this tender supplication: “Hide me [Lord] under the shadow of thy wings.”

Cover Illustration by Jo Merrill

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.

 

In Praise of Virtue by George Merrill

Since the recent election there has been a revised interest in the nature of character. Just how significant are personal character and virtue in the conduct of our national leaders?

David Brooks in his book, The Road to Character, attempts to identify some qualities that determine character. He reviews the lives of great leaders like Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, Dorothy Day, and St Augustine to mention a few.

Their personalities were different, but they had these virtues in common: humility, a sense of a calling, the desire to serve, self-awareness and personal discipline.

Today, taking seriously the subject of virtue may seem as outdated as leeches for bleeding patients or wearing garlic to keep vampires at bay. Virtue, I believe, represents the best of what we can be.

As I take Brooks’s point, the greatness of those around us, ennobles us and inspires us to reach higher.

Some twenty years ago, I had a very privileged experience. I met a man and grew fond of him. I suspect there was an element of hero worship for me in that I knew he was a retired Rear Admiral. Like my father, he was a man who had served in WWII. Not until shortly before he died did I know the breadth and depth of his service to our country and the world. This man was a hero in the best sense of the word. His name was Rafael Celestino Benitez. We all knew him as Rafe.

He was the epitome of the Renaissance man: conversant in literature, experienced in politics, seasoned in the art of war, but especially that he was always curious, wondering about the spiritual questions that waft though everyone’s minds at one time or another. For most of us they just die there. They never died in his mind.

Rafe thought deeply, seeking the truths that guided human affairs. He was thoughtful, but not opinionated. He had a big heart. Rafe, a native of Puerto Rico, was a lawyer and fluent in Spanish. When he retired in Easton, he frequently helped Hispanic migrants in their legal difficulties.

I’d been in a men’s group with Rafe. We explored spiritual issues. I cannot remember the context, but he once quoted a line from Gray’s epic poem that went thus: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, to waste its sweetness on the desert air.” The lines imprinted themselves in my memory. As I look back on my time with him, I wonder whether the words may have been prophetic, in the sense they were descriptive of Rafe’s way of being in the world. He never called undue attention to himself although during his life he had profound influence on the world around him. He served as chief of the United States naval mission to Cuba and after retirement became Pan American World Airways vice president for Latin America. He was remarkably humble and I only learned the extent of his heroism when I read a book documenting America’s submarine warfare.

Reading the book and through others I learned of his heroism in the Pacific during WWII. During the cold war, in a submarine spy mission, the Cochino’s (his sub), battery caught fire. He assured the safety of his crew and stayed with the burning sub until the crew was rescued and it was obvious there was no way to save the boat. He then boarded the rescue ship. He received the Silver Star, the Gold star and the bronze star for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” and “being an inspiration to the officers and men of his ship in evading enemy countermeasures.”

Even before I knew the extent of his courage and gallantry there was a certain aura about the man. It’s hard to describe, but it’s something like sensing the depth of character that’s hosted in a person of disarming humility. It’s hard to understate virtue because it’s so conspicuous in those who have it.

Rafe had been working on book. It was to be his legacy. He asked me one day if I would join him on a trip to Annapolis to take his final manuscript to the publishers. Of course, I was honored. We went to the Naval Academy afterward and he showed me where his class roster of 1939 was posted. He reminisced about his days at the Academy. Interestingly he didn’t seem interested in telling war stories.

Shortly before Rafe died he gave me copy of his book. It’s called Anchors: Ethical and Practical Maxims. It’s small, spare, and the maxims are delivered without any flourish. They are clear and unambiguous. He wrote a note in my copy. I share it because I believe it makes a point about the nature of greatness.

“To George Merrill whose thoughtful insights were of help to me in the developments of Anchors.” Of course, I was deeply flattered. I can’t imagine saying anything that might have remotely informed his book. Having said that, however, I see in his kind inscription something else; it’s what great men or women offer us. In our association with them and in their service to others we are the ones who are ennobled because of the virtues they possess. It’s like being illuminated for just standing in sunlight.

Anchor’s first maxim reads simply: “Steadfastly seek moral excellence, a standard achieved when virtues such as integrity, fidelity, honesty and the like become a natural part of your inner person.”

In the dialogue in Plato’s Meno, the question is raised, ‘Can virtue be taught?’ The conclusion is, it can’t be. But it’s the wrong question. ‘Can virtue be learned?’ is the right question – and I believe it can.

I think virtue is communicated by inspiration. As we engage with great men and women, they leave us a legacy the way Rafe did for many. The legacy is simple. It inspires the feeling: “I want to be like that.”

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.

Waiting by George Merrill

 

Until recently I had no idea just what I had riding on my knees. In a brief episode, recently, I realized that I was.

I reflect today on an injured knee. For a day or so last week I couldn’t bend it without pain. That’s when accepting things as they are can be daunting. An injured meniscus, although painful, is common and easily treatable. The mishap led me to reflect on infirmities and particularly about the work of our bodies.

Of the emotional chords any infirmity may strike, whether it’s from a transient injury or a loss, I expect to feel anger, fear, pain and the emptiness of loss. I’ve discovered another chord. It’s the one that strikes when we are forced to wait.

In my profession, the bended knee is regarded as an act of reverence or humility. When it doesn’t bend easily, my humility goes out the window and I just get mad. It’s kind of crazy when I think of how I’m angry because I can’t demonstrate humility or show sufficient reverence. However, I’ve learned something about the business of waiting. It was during the days after the pain of the injured meniscus appeared and my knee took me to the emergency room, then to doctors and subsequently kept me off my feet for a few days.

I first arrived at the emergency room at 4:00 in the afternoon and was discharged at 8:30. I was treated kindly and well. For me, the essence of the experience was about waiting.

On a subsequent visit to a doctor, the waiting room was filled. The tone was subdued. Some people spoke softly as they do in churches or at funerals and most patients remained anesthetized by their cell phones, the anodyne of the twenty-first century.

By definition, a patient is one who suffers and endures it without complaint. One patient in the waiting room that day didn’t know that. He complained, and vociferously at that.

“I’ve had it” he roared full bore so everyone in the room couldn’t help hearing him. “I’m tired of all this f…king waiting, tired of doctors, tired of this sh..tty wheel chair. This is it!” he declared defiantly, but triumphantly. “No more just hurrying up to wait. F..k that!”  He then settled back to waiting. Whether the doctor or even heaven heard his complaint I don’t know, but everyone in the room did.  I’ll bet what the man said that day in the waiting room everyone also thought but hadn’t heard it expressed quite so graphically. He captured the collective mood, that unique burden that waiting places on each of us.

There, the passing moments were less about pain and restricted mobility, and more of waiting. Most of our lives are spent in some form of waiting. We live in a perpetual state of what’s next. I’ve noticed that in muffler shops or emergency rooms, at car dealers or restaurants, and in waiting areas of all kinds, the ubiquitous television sits in the corner. We can’t be left alone with our thoughts. Heaven forbid what may arise in an undistracted mind.

Opioids spare us the intensity of physical pain while we wait. Psychotropic drugs can limit mental suffering as we learn to live less fearfully. Food can feed empty souls and broken hearts as well as empty stomachs, but people fleeing life with calories or other anodynes are never sated. Waiting is the art of accommodating the rises and falls of everyday experience. Doing it well requires practice.

It’s hard to wait when the heart is feeling fearful, bored, restless, angry and unsure. It’s hard to wait when we’re in pain. The community emergency room is the one crucible in our community  (including summer beach traffic on route 50) in which our capacity for patience is fully challenged.

Patience is not the hallowed virtue it once was. Contemporary culture abhors vacuums of any kind, especially the kind involved in waiting. Of the heavenly virtues, patience lists fifth. Among contemporary virtues, for all practical purposes, it’s extinct.

I’ve been meditating off and on over the years. One form of meditation is called the “walking meditation.” It requires me to take exceedingly slow steps, while during each step staying aware of the earth’s feel underfoot. When I tried this, I’d always feel driven to walk faster, as if I needed to hurry up to get somewhere, but where? I didn’t know, but only that I had to hurry. I grew bored and restless with the slow stride and turned my time of reflection into a call to action.

Now my knee is such that I dare not walk quickly for the fear of aggravating the injury and the leg collapsing. I’ve been forced back to basics and obliged to practice patience, which I now understand includes the art of waiting. Waiting may well be fundamental to the art of living. It’s a sad commentary on my capacity for gratitude. When my body serves me faithfully I take it for granted and don’t give it a thought. When it lets me down I feel angry at the discomforts and also put upon for all the waiting and inconveniences that I am obliged to endure as a result of its malfunctions.

It never occurred to me until just last week that those two relatively small joints appearing halfway down my legs had been holding me up for my entire walking life. I was a knee jerk; too busy rushing here and there to give them a single thought.

These circumstances have led me to another place, back to the “walking meditation.” I have discovered great comfort in it, not the kind that the rapid pace had for me in the past – that was more about achievement and conquest and being on the go – but now I can feel in greater depth what a simple joy it is to walk and feel the earth beneath my foot – the earth just as it is without making more of it than sensing its contours rising to meet my sole.

In an epic statement about the significance of waiting, the poet John Milton wrote this as he struggled to come to terms with his infirmity, a lifetime of blindness: “They also serve, who only stand and wait.”

I would add only if standing and waiting, is out of the question, sitting will do.

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.

 

Lost and Found by George Merrill

I can’t find my cell phone. I misplace keys. I’ve often thought that glasses, wallets, pens, pencils, books, bills, shopping lists and magazines grow legs and wander off. Or are poltergeists and ghoulies responsible? No, this propensity is not spook-driven or even age-related. Losing things is normal. It’s just that in that regard, I’m particularly normal. I’m always losing things. I recently found bittersweet comfort in Kathryn Schulz’s searching essay called Losing Streak appearing recently in the New Yorker. She suffers from this maddening aberration or . . . is it an aberration?

One visit to the west coast was especially unsettling for Ms. Schulz. She left her car keys on a table following a visit to a coffee house. Leaving home the next day she’d left her house key in the front door. Leaving a café, she realizes on her way home that her long sleeve shirt was still on the back of a chair where she’d placed it. Returning to reclaim it she learns she also left her wallet at the same table. She parked her truck. When she went to get it she couldn’t find it for an hour or so. She assures us that this is a family trait and she’s inherited it. Writer Schulz’s sister is a cognitive scientist at M.I.T. Schulz describes her as “the most scatterbrained person I ever met.”

I cannot recall the passwords for computer sites that I have scrupulously fashioned from personal data that I am sure will make them easy for me to remember. I find Ms. Schulz sympathetic on this point. She likens computer passwords to the socks in a washing machine; when we go to retrieve them, they’re never there.

Being scatterbrained is often cited as the cause for misplacing things, like not paying adequate attention to what we’re about. I rate high on that score. Through my school years I was a notorious daydreamer and a lot of what people call the ‘real world’ slipped by me unnoticed. It’s terribly annoying to lose and misplace things, and I am twice bedeviled because what I’ve just lost is often right there in front of me. Ms. Schulz says there exists a rule that claims what you’ve lost is typically within an eighteen inch radius around you when you first become aware of the loss. For me, the rule has proved spot on.

Psychoanalysts have a field day with patients who misplace or lose things. They immediately want to examine such selective amnesia as they believe it may be informed by darker motives, some as simple as you don’t like what you’ve lost or have a conflicted feeling about it. My experience with that is different; those people whom I dislike or incidents in which I’d been involved that still make me cringe remain only too available to my recollection. I’d count it a blessing if I could just lose them.

I once had my mother’s old typewriter from secretarial school. Over successive moves it was lost. I was sentimentally attached to it and grieved the loss. But in this kind of loss there remained the possibility that, if not within an eighteen-inch radius, someday I might find it somewhere. The hope of reclaiming it never wholly went away and I lived in a vague hope of its return. I think antique shops and early attic stores appeal to this tendency.

But there are losses and there are losses.

Judith Viorst, in her book, Necessary Losses, writes: “For the road to human development is paved with renunciation. Throughout our life we grow by giving up.” It’s a hard saying, but one I know is true; that we lose is not an aberration, at all. It’s because we have things to lose. We were born to die, and whatever we have gained in the interim we will eventually have to surrender. It’s one of life’s realities we resist the most, usually by denial.

I recall vividly after my father’s death. I refused to accept it. He’d returned from the War in Europe in 1945 and suddenly died shortly thereafter. I remember feeling desolate and I began weaving a tale to myself. He was actually working for Army Intelligence, I told myself. In order to engage in a special mission he was ordered to feign his death to carry it out in secret. When he’d successfully accomplished the mission, he’d appear and things would return to what they had been before. I clung to that hope for a long time. I gave it up when I couldn’t fit into his old army jacket anymore.

As a hospice chaplain years ago the following was perhaps the most heartrending story of the many I heard from mourners suffering the loss of a spouse. It would go something like this: “I’d get home, open the door, walk into the kitchen and think of all the things I couldn’t wait to tell him. Then I’d remember he was not there any more.”
Photographs may be all that is left of lost loved on. They are often kept visible to see and also so that they can’t be lost. We don’t find what’s lost in a photograph, but we can take comfort in the stories they recall.

It is given to us as human beings to suffer losses. Is there any redeeming thought in all that? I think Ms. Schulz put it as well as anyone can. Our losses remain “a kind of external conscience, urging us to make better use of our finite days.” How then are we to live? The past is gone, the future uncertain. All we have for certain is now and our task is to live each and every now as consciously and fully as possible.

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.

Got A Attitude by George Merrill

Some years ago my wife and returned from Baltimore after visiting children. The traffic downtown was stop and go. We’d frequently be stalled. We wound up next to a car in which two young people were arguing about something. Finally one turned to the other and yelled loudly enough for us to hear: “You know what your problem is? You got a attitude.”

I think of attitude as a kind of atmospheric mist. We exude it. It surrounds us in the way mists hover over tidewater on fall mornings. Some call it an aura, others a spirit and still others, attitude. Writers call it a voice. It influences how we do things, as we negotiate life’s challenges. The quality of the aura or attitude contributes to creating a tone. Attitudes encourage one mood or another, say, of antagonism or conciliation, sympathy or contempt. Attitudes can hinder or facilitate cooperation. As a result of the incident in Baltimore, my wife and I created a functional buzzword to use when we get testy with one another. Then, one of us is sure to say, “You got a attitude.”

I think of “a attitude” as something distinctively acerbic and hostile. There are, however, all kinds of attitudes. It’s worth noting that for airplane pilots, as well as for many people, having the right attitude is matter of life and death. An ADI, an airplane instrument, or ‘attitude directional indicator,’ communicates to the pilot whether his plane has the proper attitude i.e., its correct position with reference to the horizon. On that score, pilots learn not to trust their instincts where attitude is concerned. If they do, they’ll develop a bad attitude, never know it, and ditch the plane.

Our daughter’s adolescence was prickly. She appeared one day in the living room looking especially defiant. She sported a T-shirt with “I Love My Attitude” prominently inscribed on it. She was making her point with what I would describe as “a attitude.” If only there had been ADI for teens. After a number of near crashes, in a year or so, she lost it; her attitude I mean.

Author and business consultant Steven Corey wrote a book. He noticed the habits of especially effective people. In particular, he identified attitudes, if you will, by which you and I approach our tasks. He calls one attitude, the scarcity mentality, the other, the abundance mentality. They shape personal inclinations and determine the actions that proceed from the mindset.

Covey believes most of us operate from a scarcity mentality. It’s an attitude toward life that insists there is only so much to go around. What you gain will necessarily deprive others. The scarcity mindset believes there will never be enough. Whether it’s money, food, emotions or something else entirely there’s always too little. We look at life from what we lack rather than what we have. It’s an anxious attitude that sees others as adversaries. The mindset breeds a climate of mistrust and it’s difficult to achieve cooperation.

An abundance mentality, on the other hand, flows out of a deep inner feeling of personal worth and security. It cultivates the sense that affirms the plenty available, how there’s enough to spare for everybody if we pull together. This attitude results in sharing of resources, prestige, recognition, profits, and decision-making. It opens up new possibilities while taking pleasure in the successes of others.

There are two highly visible world leaders today. They’re intent on addressing current inequities and deprivations – although not exactly the same ones. These men are regarded as rebels by their constituencies and both boldly challenge the status quo of their respective historic institutions. Donald Trump, a political rebel, addresses his tasks from a scarcity mentality. Pope Francis, a spiritual rebel, proceeds from a mentality of abundance. The former betrays “a attitude,” that there’s not enough and winners must grab what they can. The latter’s attitude is one of hope; there’s plenty, but we must learn to share it with others.

Trump’s public declarations are typically ominous and reflect his scarcity mentality. He scolds, warns and reminds us of the failure of our institutions, the catastrophes wrought by the previous administration, our ineffective policies and the inept public officials serving the country before his tenure. There are Muslims behind every tree ready to take what’s ours. In short, his pitch is that it’s a disgraceful country in a dog-eat-dog world but he’ll fix it.

In a striking move that was no less radical than John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope Francis went over the heads of church traditionalists, when be began carrying out an inclusive agenda on migration, climate change and poverty. It made him a figure of unmatched global popularity. It touched the hearts of many, but offended others.

Pope’s vision of sharing abundance, caring for the earth, and bringing justice the poor, is considered by some Catholics (both lay and cleric) to be a betrayal of the West’s traditional Judeo-Christian values. There are politicians that believe that the pope is “seriously misguided” and is a “socialist.” It’s odd that informed people might regard Francis’ teaching as misguided. It’s the essence of Judeo Christian spirituality – although admittedly not always its practice. From the beginning, compassion and generosity have been a hard sell but thankfully never wholly forgotten.

What are we to make of it?

It’s about attitude. To approach the needs of our world with “a attitude,” polarizes and limits possibilities. We become mostly fearful and defensive. If we can alter our present course and its attitude of scarcity to one of abundance, new possibilities will open up naturally.

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.