Saddle Shoes and The Kingdom of Heaven by George Merrill

Getting to the right place for the wrong reasons is more the rule than an exception.

For a long time my parents were uncertain which church to affiliate with. My father had been raised Methodist, and my mother Dutch Reformed. Neither was an active churchgoer but – as many middle class people – they thought their children could use the respectability of some religious affiliation. Proximity I think finally clinched their decision: the Church of the Ascension was much closer to our house than either the Methodist or the Dutch Reformed Church. The parish was an easy walk from home so there was no need for transportation. My religious journey began not with aspirations to greater piety but for proximity and convenience. I was baptized there. I was ten at the time, considerably older than the typical baptismal candidate.

I had little sense of what baptism was about. The rite assured that I would become an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. At my age, these theological formulations went over my head and I remember my baptism now only because of the relief I felt that my suit and especially my saddle shoes remained dry during the ritual. Prior to the baptism, my parents bought me a glen plaid suit and the shoes for the occasion. I was a clotheshorse and eager to wear my new clothes. The solemnity of the occasion was of secondary importance to me if I was aware of it at all.  Dressing up was first priority– a shallow motivation to be sure – but I was nevertheless respectfully clothed to claim whatever my new status was as a child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Even during the baptism my worldly desires dominated.

During the baptism, my head was slightly inclined over the baptismal font in preparation for the priest to pour water on top of my head. This was done three times in the name of the “Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”  I could think only of how to protect my saddle shoes from any cascading water. Fr. Rogers was skilled at this maneuver so the shoes remained dry while I received my new inheritance. For all the wrong reasons I was initiated into a spiritual community, which grew in importance as I became older and more aware.  I would say, the choice of that parish also turned out to be a good call, even as my parents, or me for that matter, had little if any sense of the implications that belonging to this community carried.

How many decisions do we make or in which we enthusiastically participate during our lives without having any idea of what’s really going on?  It’s probably most of them. Those decisions cause no great harm. A fortuitous outcome of many of mine has led me to believe there is an overarching reality that redeems us even as we muddle through life. To see such grace at work during our lives requires a hard look at the erratic course a life follows.

Voting, marriage, and buying a first home are three decisions I imagine most of us make while poorly informed. Studying up on your candidate, engaging in pre-marital counseling or contracting for a house inspection can offer some assurances that we’re acting with our eyes open. However wide our eyes may be opened, there are always surprises. Many blindside us but some are welcomed.

Scientists deal with this reality regularly. In investigating one phenomenon, they invariably discover something radically new and altogether different.

One day, scientist Perry Spencer of Raytheon was fiddling around with a microwave emitting magnetron used in radar when he felt an odd sensation in his pocket. He felt something sizzling. A chocolate bar in his pocket had begun melting. By a fluke he discovered what we know as today’s microwave ovens.

Navy engineer Richard James was experimenting to find ways to stabilize delicate instruments on ships that were always rolling and pitching at sea. What he inadvertently stumbled upon is what delights the heart of every child; the ubiquitous “Slinky.” Three hundred million sold worldwide.

There’s a spiritual message in this. It’s a dead-end to insist we have to get it right.  There’s a piece of scripture that has suggested this but only because it has been misinterpreted. “Be ye perfect even as your father in heaven is perfect.” Know anyone who is up to that? If you do they will probably bore you to death. The English word ‘perfect’ is an inadequate rendition of a word that at its root means ‘compassionate.’ As human beings we are not challenged to “get it right” but to be compassionate, a far more challenging ideal. Aspirations to perfection lay an enormous burden on you and me. Perfectionists can drive themselves and everyone around them nuts.

The election of Ascension to be my spiritual home and the baptism that followed it was hardly the result of high-minded piety or idealism. It’s nevertheless where the full story began. I became a part of a nurturing community through my turbulent adolescence, aware of the healing power words and music while I discovered some of the timeless tools by which I could attempt to plumb the mysteries of God and of my own soul.

And all I knew when all this began was that my parents were delighted not to have to drive us to church and the saddle shoes remained dry during my initiation into the Kingdom of Heaven.

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.


Strangers by George Merrill

One summer, as a teenager, I worked as a laborer for a ship’s chandler in New York Harbor. In those days, freight ships had access through their hulls for tenders to come alongside and deliver staples. I was always thrilled to meet my foreign peers as we handed off sacks of coffee and boxes of fruits from the tender to the ship. One of the rituals – it seemed universal and instinctual then – was to greet our fellow laborers from various foreign ports by offering them cigarettes. There would be an immediate nod and smile of camaraderie. The recipient would in return take out his cigarettes like Gauloises and offer me one as I extended my pack of Camels toward him. Then came the task of trying to converse, as neither of us spoke the other’s language nor were we even sure where others were from. We would gesticulate, point emphatically, raise our voices for emphasis, as if volume would bring understanding, as we attempted to learn more from one another. Where are you from? Who do you work for? In the process we occasionally understood differences and what the other was getting at. I remember how exhilarating it felt to wend our way through the apparent differences that separated us to connect and discover something in common.

I believe to know others and be known is one of the most basic hungers of the heart. We yearn to be connected, to be a part of the whole.

There is something universally satisfying about finding kinship in a stranger. For starters, it might mean nothing more than establishing that you’re both smokers. Still, better to begin there than to remain strangers. We may be from different countries, speak different languages, and even have similar bad habits, but we all enjoy the same heritage having traveled here the same way riding the Milky Way. In one instance for me, the awareness of others grew from floating alongside foreign freighters in New York Harbor and finding some hitherto unknown traveling companions.

A thought about this apprehension with strangers today troubles me, but I am not sure what there is to do about it since I fear it’s become a way of life. How has such universal suspicion has become part of our daily lives? I’ve become increasingly aware that in the last maybe twenty years we are living reactively, defensively with each other. I hate to see it, but it’s begun showing itself in all kinds of ways that communicates the message that whatever is strange and unknown is necessarily dangerous. It’s evident in small ways. The popular way of saying our goodbyes is to say ‘take care.’ Must we be so hypervigilant and remind others to be?

There are public indicators that we must protect ourselves from one another. I’ve noticed in supermarkets that there are disinfectant dispensers or handy wipes to clean off the carts we push to carry groceries in. It’s as if just being human is a dirty enough business to make us threats to one another.

I have watched my children as they raised their own and observed how they behave. It’s as though there were dangers everywhere. ‘Don’t talk to strangers’ is a refrain I hear from many parents these days who legitimately fear for their children’s safety. Few children today roam the neighborhoods to play. I cannot but feel sad. Whatever has happened to us that we don’t welcome the stranger, but instead suspect him or her of being dangerous?

In a strange twist, the cellphone has both lent itself to this phenomenon and at the same time offered some protection from some of the imagined dangers. Children now carry their phones everywhere and some texts they receive can be frightening. The children also have in their hands the instruments by which they can seek help in situations where they might be vulnerable.

Every parent’s nightmare is losing a child or fearing he or she may be walking into danger. Is there a more anxious atmosphere now than there was fifty years ago? I suspect there is and it results I believe from loss of real neighborhoods where people know one another by name. Here on the Shore where retirees come to live, some permanently, some weekending, has created communities where people have houses close by but do not know who their neighbors are or if they do, rarely see them.

It’s interesting to note that new houses under construction have their porches in the back of the house to insure privacy. In the past, porches were on the front where neighbors welcomed seeing other people coming and going. “Private Property, No Trespassing” is a common warning seen on the lawns and front gates of many properties.

A prominent African-American educator once told me about growing up near White Haven here on the Shore. It was during segregation and in a small black community. Despite the indignities of segregation, she recalled fondly the neighborhood. To paraphrase her story, she said that since that long ago time, she has not experienced the safety and solidarity of a community. Neighbors knew each other and were called “Aunt” and “Uncle” by all the kids. Even if Mom and Dad weren’t at home, kids had to behave, as neighbors kept an eye on them. They grew up as we hope kids grow up; feeling safe and cared for. People knew and had come to trust one another.

My granddaughter Leighton is fifteen. She recently volunteered at a summer camp in Delaware providing day activities for children from homes with limited means. One little girl, age five, grew fond of Leighton. One day as they were engaged in activities, the girl looked to Leighton and said; “If you were only brown you could be my sister.”

“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” reads the scriptures. I would add that angels come in all colors and many don’t speak English.

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.

Saved By George Merrill

In 1939, I went with my family to see a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. The stadium was huge, expansive and bigger than any public place I’d ever been in. Everything was new to me and seemed so immense and spacious. I wasn’t really thinking much about the game, but more about the expanse of the stadium and also that it was a holiday weekend. That meant no school for three whole days, a thrilling thought for me. Here I was in the Bronx as if I’d been set free from the usual constraints of my daily life on Staten Island.

I felt a rush of liberation, of joy. I can’t remember having the same feeling ever again quite as intensely. The feeling and the moment were indelibly implanted in memory at a time in my life when I can remember little else. In my child’s whimsical mind, had I been translated into another universe where time was not a factor any more in my life? Was this moment of joy to be forever and ever? I wondered if I’d somehow tripped and fallen into a moment of eternal bliss. Yankee Stadium was an unlikely place for such a transcendent moment. I didn’t like baseball that much.

The memory of the incident persisted my whole life although it made no sense to me. I guessed that I’d had a glimpse of something bigger than baseball or being off from school for a few days. But what?

Ideas get sown randomly. We process thousands in a day. Like seeds, some die. Many remain latent; some germinate much later and in unexpected places.

So more than half a century after the Yankee Stadium event, a professional colleague and I happened on the topic of salvation. We were discussing how in Christian circles salvation is popularly understood as the assurance of an afterlife in heaven. Although some hold that it’s a free gift, I suspect more believe that salvation is earned by a life of moral rectitude. I’ve never been wholly easy with that. If it were so, heaven would be as sparsely populated as the Sahara Desert. I’ve suspected that the fundamentals of salvation are more of a living dynamic, something happening in the moment, rather than the site of a future residence.

My colleague, more biblically informed than I am, mentioned one of the earliest historical understandings of the word salvation. The word describes an experience. The experience is almost wholly universal and can be put like this: I’m in a tight place. I’m hemmed in, but am being released into a wide-open and spacious place. To say this in another way, experiences of salvation are common to the religious and irreligious alike because they are one of the spiritual dynamics inherent in our daily lives. It’s a process experienced in the now and not a place we go in the future. Who among us hasn’t been jammed up and hemmed in, one way or another, and then sought to break out into the open? When it happens, it’s a powerful moment. Some call it ‘moments of grace.’

The nature of salvation is not only a preoccupation of theologians or philosophers. It’s a living drama that plays out daily in our personal and social lives.

Addictions are one example. Individuals recovering from addictions are in a process of going from a tight and constricting place to free and open spaces. It’s a spiritual process. For the addicted, this is a daily – if not an hourly – issue. It happens one step at a time. It’s all about ‘now.’ For such persons, awareness must be constantly cultivated in order not to be trapped again in those dead-ends to which addiction invariably leads. There is a profound sense of gratitude a recovering person feels in knowing from personal experience how precious those wide open spaces are and being able to freely live in them. It brings happiness to everyone.

I recently watched a TV clip on the aftermath of an earthquake. A large crowd watched as one man worked to free a child who’d been trapped. As the man lifted the child into the hands of the crowd everyone cheered, clapped and threw hands into the air in jubilation. It was as if the rescued child were one of their own. It’s a joyful occasion witnessing those who are trapped become freed and led into the wide open.

Salvation has social implications as well. The ramifications are playing themselves out dramatically in today’s immigration crisis. It’s painful to see.

Governments grow increasingly hesitant to grant space for immigrants fleeing the tight and constricting places in which they find themselves imprisoned. For wealthy countries that have both the resources and the spaces to create possibilities, the fear of the stranger inhibits action. We in the Western World, who have the resources to “save” scores of immigrants, lack the will and the vision to do it. It raises a question – if one subscribes to salvation’s old “saved or damned” typology – of who then is damned in this immigration tragedy? Is it those who inhabit the open and spacious environs or those confined to tight constricting places?

Admittedly these reflections are a long way from a day at Yankee Stadium in 1939, when, for a moment, I sensed there was a world right here filled with joy and endless possibilities. To find what we’re looking for – the wide-open spaces where the heart yearns to dwell – we first have to know they exist. A ball game may seem like a strange place to become spiritually aware. But then, even in baseball, finding your way home safely is the name of the game.

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.

On the Face of Things by George Merrill

Appearances deceive!

When I read Jesus’s words, “Judge not,” I think to myself, “You’re putting me on, right? Not judge? It’s impossible. Give me a break!”

Well, it is and isn’t impossible. With first judgments, the ones we typically make on the face of things, I’d say it’s impossible. Knee jerk judgments behave like reflexes; you can rarely stop them any more than you can get a fit of sneezing to end. Getting at the heart of what makes up our judgments is another matter. We have control over that. It requires some practice and being better informed on how we’re put together psychologically and spiritually. “Know thyself” is our most valuable asset. Being informed, we’re less likely to be suckered into attaching ourselves to snap judgments that are typically suspect.

I was in the grocery store not long go. The line was long. Shoppers were getting restless. The man directly in the front of me was huge man with a considerably protuberant belly – a beer belly I’d say. His hair was long and unruly. He wore on a tank top and under each arm he held two large cartons of beer. His arms and shoulders were covered with tattoos – large hearts pierced by arrows, a dragon, an iron cross, a nude woman and a couple of American flags.

There were about five people waiting as an elderly man by the checkout lady fumbled in his wallet for a check. I was the third in line, just behind the huge man.

The elderly man found the check but then couldn’t find a pen. Then he sought for his glasses all of which was consuming a considerable time. I could see ripples of irritation forming along the line: a few people turned around and looked at the person behind them. That person in turn rolled their eyes and sighed conspiratorially, acknowledging what a pain it was to be stuck in line like this for just one patron.

The huge man was right behind the flustered shopper. He put down his two cartons of beer and I watched as he leaned forward to speak to the unfortunate customer. I heard him say: “Hey Buddy, let me fill out the check for you and all you have to do is sign it.”
The man, subdued but grateful, handed him the check and the huge man filled it out and returned it.

It was a risky intervention: it could easily have soured and raised suspicions of the huge man’s efforts to help. The offer was unusual but bold and creative, and I would never have suspected it of him. I had no idea that a Good Samaritan might look like a biker from Hells’ Angles. Nothing is quite as it seems on the face of things. Yet so many judgments are a result of our perception of appearances. Racial profiling and gender discrimination are cases in point.

In a New York Times on June 23rd, a picture of a psychologist appeared in an editorial. The article was called “The Torturers Speak.” Dr. James Mitchell is one of two psychologists who contracted, for eighty one million dollars, to design, oversee and help carry out the “enhanced interrogation” of detainees after 9/11. He and another psychologist are being sued.

Dr. Mitchell is handsome, a well-dressed, middle-aged man with a distinguished beard. He’s pictured holding his glasses in his hand, like professors, politicians and preachers do as they speak. You’d take him for a doctor or lawyer or any professional. If you were to meet him for the first time my guess is he’d inspire confidence with the dignified presence he commands. Admittedly, in the picture he looks angry but I don’t know why.

The enhanced interrogation techniques were horrific enough that Jose Rodriguez, a top CIA official, destroyed the videotapes of the techniques, which he described as “ugly visuals.” One detainee after eighty-three “enhanced interrogations was reduced to hysterical pleading and unable to communicate at all with his tormentors.” His dignity was gone, his humanity violated.

Both Mitchel and his colleague claimed that they did not “want to continue what they were doing.” Intelligence officials, however, “kept telling [us] every day a nuclear bomb would be exploded in the United States and it would be my fault if I didn’t continue.”

My knee jerk reaction to the editorial was to feel revulsion and yet it is difficult to make judgments when all the information and the many pressures on all parties are not fully recognized. Still, the issue remains; when the going gets tough, what are the values we hold most dear that will guide us?

The mentality that this interrogation regimen reflects is undeniable: it really doesn’t matter how you play the game. Winning is all there is. Winning, a form of power is very seductive.

There’s another scary piece in the story that troubles me. The capacity that apparently well educated and informed professionals, people like me – holding degrees in the humane studies like psychology – are able to sufficiently distance themselves from their own humanity that eighty-one thousand dollars would be worth all the inhumane suffering that their plan would inflict. That demonic piece of our human condition –and the potential for that lives in all of us – surfaces again and again whether in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, in the inhumane strategies of Issis or the detailed planning in the Final Solution the Nazis launched. These were not crimes of passion, which makes them all the more chilling. The murder and torture were coolly calculated with clinical precision, schemes devised and executed as manageable bureaucratic policies, which, through some torturous casuistry, legitimized them.

Only God can judge and for good reasons. He’s the only one who has the complete overview, who knows all the facts. In the meantime, we are charged to be discerning while holding firmly to the values that dignify our humanity.

It takes practiced eye not to be fooled by appearances.

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.





All A’Twitter by George Merrill

Remember the days when a tweet was a delight to the senses? Can you recall how the sound of birds had an almost ethereal mystique like the laughter of loons that made us wonder what was so funny out there on the lake in the dark? A sparrow’s tweet was chirpy and cheerful, the dove, while not a tweet as such was an evocative sound and often the first thing we would hear when we rose to meet our day. Twitter was the welcoming voice of the morning –sung by nature for us as we prepared to meet the challenges of the day. In the last several months the tweet has emitted mostly dissonant, discordant notes. Twitter, once the gift from our feathered friends, is now for the birds. The sounds of beauty and joy are displaced by the cries of anger and retribution. Very sad!

But no! The task for those of us who, in our daily lives, yearn for the return of joyful music we’ve known like the melodies of larks and whippoorwills (I confess the incessant squeal of the Osprey irritates me) is not to despair but to develop wiser ways of hearing, more selective ways of seeing, indeed, more creative ways of being. That includes listening with the third ear, perceiving with the third eye, and becoming aware of what transpires in that quiet corner of our minds of which we remain generally unaware. When sought out, it has helpful secrets to guide us. We access it by thinking more deeply.

Yes, scorpions sting and skunks smell. Pigeons make park benches uninhabitable and cats leave the broken bodies of mice unceremoniously at our doorsteps. But that’s just who they are. That’s what they do. We must look beyond their propensities, and that means exploring our own more deeply. We are endowed with remarkable capacities to reflect, face ugliness with grace, gentleness and wisdom. Our job is to strengthen that capacity.

The world enfolds. We react but mostly instinctually. To what are we reacting? Typically it’s to someone’s preposterous claims. Our initial reaction doesn’t always render an accurate assessment. Psychoanalyst Theodor Reik taught us about listening with the third ear. This is a deep listening to what is demanding our attention and troubling us. It’s one way of listening that hears but doesn’t attach itself inordinately to what it’s hearing.  It’s a little like the wise mother who is dealing with an obstreperous child who gets fussy and petulant. Where’s the fussiness coming from, the wise mother thinks? It’s to that she attends, and not to the irritable whining and fussing. She develops the capacity to hear what’s beyond the petulance and listen for where it’s originating. She doesn’t deny what’s happening but she’s not reactive. She keeps her eye on the ball and isn’t distracted.

As there is a third ear, in the fabric of our spiritual composition, there’s also a third eye. I learned recently about ‘bindis.’ A bindi is a small red dot that appears on the forehead between the brows of Hindu and other religious practitioners in India. It witnesses to the gate that leads to our inner realms and spaces of higher consciousness. It is the sacred symbol of the cosmos in its unmanifested state, I suspect a little like the Garden of Eden before the fall, a wonderful place to explore. Like so many spiritual paradoxes we discover over our lifetime, we have the capacity to see beyond the mundane and trivial to discern between what’s cruel and demeaning and what is kind and life giving. With practice we can find refuge in the larger picture where goodness endures, while not becoming ensnared in what’s ephemeral and two-dimensional.

There are people who hear with the third ear and see with the third eye. They are our prophets. Rachel Carson was a modern prophet. Prophets never have it easy.

I recall the early days of environmental awareness and the struggles that took place. As Allied Chemical recognized the threat that Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” posed to the pesticide industry, they launched an ugly campaign to discredit her. In a clip I saw years ago, a man speaking for the chemical industry – handsome, white haired, an articulate male industry captain – tries to discredit her scientific findings alleging that because she was a woman and an unmarried woman at that, it’s well established that a single women are inclined to hysteria and are therefore unreliable. Talk about fake news!

I think of her today and the title of her epic book  “Silent Spring.” The title referenced the danger that unregulated toxins were creating in the environment by specifically inducing a chain of poisons that spread indiscriminately through the ecosystem destroying wildlife. Silent Spring alluded to the destruction of birds whose melodic twitter is one of the timeless treasures of the natural world.

I’ve had the thought that at some point someone will write a commentary on our age of vicious electronic exchanges and identify the destructive aspects they are having on the social fabric. They might title it, “Dissonant Spring.”

Social toxins, left unregulated, poison an entire social structure.

I’m not sure where this story originated but it speaks to the heart of the matter for me.

A young Cherokee is brought before the tribal elders. They are concerned about his aggressive tendencies. One of the elders takes the young man aside and tells him that his anger is understandable, since all humans have within them two wolves. One wolf is good and peaceable, and the other is evil and angry. The two wolves are in constant battle with one another, since neither is powerful enough to destroy the other. The young man asks the elder “But if they are of equal power, which wolf will win?” And the elder replies, “The one you feed the most.”

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



Getting Off on the Right Foot by George Merrill

Getting off on the right foot can make your day. It makes all the difference in the world.

For some years I have been meeting with groups of elderly people for purposes of mutual learning, discussion and support. Ages vary from mid-fifties to mid-nineties. Discussions are open ended. Participants may introduce a subject of interest and concern. The subject is open for general discussion. We tell stories – not the kind of circumstantial pleasantries common to social events, but the stories from our lives that illustrate something of the particular issues we may be dealing with.

One participant may have recently lost a spouse. Another may be facing an operation while others have been considering moving from the house they have lived in for the past thirty years and the significance it has for them. In short we explore our elder lives together in a safe place. In any given meeting we investigate the manifold challenges of aging. This includes remembering what it was we might want to say that we thought of just minutes ago.

These conversations have been some of the most satisfying adventures of my adult life. I’ve gained a firm conviction that in later life, when aging people are frequently regarded as irrelevant, they in fact possess a depth of wisdom and knowledge that is extraordinary and only waiting to find expression in some kind of appreciative community.

Although many of the same concerns arise in the course of our conversations together, it is not, as is popularly thought, that older people tell the same stories again and again. What elders do, rather, is deal with many of the same issues again and again. Each time, however, they engage with each challenge in new and remarkable ways. I’d offer this thought from my experience: one is more likely to find in the aging mind a clearer grasp of how things truly are in the world. We can see how those minds have evolved flexible strategies to face the various diminishments or indignities that aging can bring.

Aging folk – all of us, really – dread the prospects of a lingering illness, a loss of a spouse or diminishing mental faculties. It’s kind of the existential elephant in the middle of the room no one is about to acknowledge except when they feel safe and understood. Small gatherings, in that regard, can be instruments of healing troubled spirits.

In a conversation recently, a group member shared how she was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She described her symptoms variously, but essentially how some of the normal tasks of living momentarily confused her and she would have to stop and try to find her way through the confusion. The disorientation might last for a time, but with some effort she was able to sort things through and do what had to be done.

She told us a story about getting dressed one morning. Her sneakers, familiar to her generally, confused her that morning, as she was not certain which sneaker belonged on which foot. She tried to find distinguishing characteristics of each sneaker that might give her a clue, but she couldn’t quite figure it out.

As her day would soon be under way and she had things to do she thought it was silly to sit and obsess about it and decided she would call her neighbor and ask her to come over and help her out. The neighbor came, delighted to help and the problem was addressed. The neighbor suggested that, with a magic marker, an “L” for the left foot could be inscribed prominently on the heel of one sneaker and “R” on the other. That done, putting on sneakers was a cinch.

I found her story moving and had several takes of my own on it.

By asking for help she revealed humility. I know how others like me would resist asking for help for something as basic as getting my shoes on. My sense of dignity and self –image would prevent me from asking. I would feel enough shame that I’d probably do nothing and feel miserable while I continued in my confusion.

Our worst enemy, spiritual guides advise us, will always be that particular part of us to which we cling the fiercest: the illusions of ourselves our egos create.

I have known people whose pride or ego can get so much in the way, and whose inability to allow themselves to be seen as vulnerable, literally cripples them. I’ve known some who, facing compromised mobility, refuse to walk with a cane or walker. The spouse of such persons is constantly fearful of a fall which the refusal to use any walking aides only increases. The issue lurking in the background is pride or ego: I don’t want anyone to see me like this. I’m not in control or on top of everything. We live with the illusion we can do it all alone.

Experiencing vulnerability frequently awakens feelings of shame. Being easy with and accepting vulnerabilities has secondary gains. If this is the way I am, and I can find a way to be at peace with it, that allows others to be ok with it, too. Honestly facing the need we have for help invariably brings us closer to others.

The woman’s story endeared her to me all the more for the worldview that her story suggested in her asking for help. She felt trusting toward others. She believed they were basically inclined to be kind and generous and would welcome a request for help and think none the less of her for it.

I believe most of us welcome opportunities to help for no other reason that it is deeply satisfying to the soul to know that you and I can make even small differences in other people’s lives. But that inhibiting suspicion that many of us harbor that others would look down on us if they only knew our limitations says more about who we are than the people whom we imagine are so critical.

Both in mental health and spiritual maturity, the need our egos have to think of ourselves as distinct from others, separate beings, can lead to our drawing back or inward. The pride we have invested in our “independence” is not only illusory, but also isolating. It leads ultimately to alienation.

Getting off on the right foot can make your day. It also brings us closer to our neighbors.

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 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.