Dry Bones by George Merrill

My knee is on the mend. The bones have realigned. I am happy to report I am out walking again. I didn’t fully realize how much I missed it until the rubber (my sneakers) hit the road. It felt like I’d been given a second chance.

On the walk I was reminded how hot Maryland summers are. It is mid-July. We have relatives in Georgia who claim Georgia’s the hottest place on the planet except maybe at its core. Not so. Maryland beats Georgia and the earth’s core hands down. It’s not just the heat, but also the humidity, which, if you’re inclined, you can wring it straight out of the air without any help from a cloth or sponge.

But back to my walk. Once resigned to the heat and humidity, I got into the delights of mobility and began looking around as I walked cautiously along the road. I felt like the child riding his bike for the first time without training wheels.

I usually keep my eyes lowered some in front so I see a short distance ahead. I scan the road that way to see any critters that might be joining me on my stroll. There are occasionally grasshoppers, once a turtle, ants and bees, especially wasps that seem to enjoy just hanging out on the road. And indeed I did see, of all creatures, a wooly bear. I’m accustomed to seeing wooly bears on my fall walks, but in July’s blazing heat, this was new to me. She was overdressed for the day wearing her dark brown and orange fur coat that I always assumed was to keep her warm in the winter. I will say, though, she undulated along happily, like a tiny balloon filled with water, and seemed to pay no attention to the heat.

I walked close the culvert that retained a few inches of water. I was soon to discover that it was the sanctuary to a host of good-sized bullfrogs. I was not aware of them at first. As I grew close to one, he squealed and “plop,” dove into the water. I note here that unlike what people imagine about bullfrogs, they squeal and squeak as often as they croak in that full basso profundo with its deep resonance.

All the frogs in the culvert were ready for me. As I approached the next one he squealed and jumped and so did about six others in succession the way dominoes, when set up a certain way, fall consecutively after the first one is toppled. It was fun to hear the “plop, plop” as I made my way up the road. I once read a published haiku that said nothing more than: “ A frog jumps in the water, plop.” The poet had a way with words.

I was doing famously – tickled pink about my newly healed bones – and was nearing my first half-mile. Then I began to ache in the most unlikely places – not as I half expected in my abused knee, but everywhere else. It began hurting in my right buttock, my thigh, and then down the front of my leg. My hip protested a little. Then I noticed my ankle ached some and suddenly, after eighty-two years of living in this very same body, I realized just how much I had wholly underestimated the number of moving parts that constitute my frame and sinew – particularly the bone and sinew from my hips on down.

Ezekiel’s proclamation, as celebrated in the famous African-American spiritual, Dry Bones, promises that at the resurrection “dem bones gonna walk around.” The spiritual explores in considerable detail how our bones are assembled one upon the other, which one is attached to which, but mentions nothing about how they will feel when first moved after not being exercised – in my case for over a month. Consider too, those who have been waiting for centuries to be raised from the dead; those first hours on their feet are not going to be any cakewalk. Maybe Ezekiel failed to mention synovial fluids, which, if included when the saints go marching in, would be sufficient to lubricate the long unused joints and mitigate pain as well.

I’m always surprised how it is that what I have so much of, I give such little thought to. My ability to move about easily – to jump, kneel and run – when I was younger I now look upon with nostalgia and some regret. The regret is that when I had it so good, I was hardly thankful for the abundance I was enjoying. Now that I have agility again, but in much more limited measure, I am far more grateful.

Gratitude is a peculiar emotion: it’s felt in inverse proportions to our blessings; there is less gratitude when we enjoy many blessings, while when there are fewer, our gratitude increases.

I’m grateful to be on the road again.

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.

Splendor in the Grass by George Merrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of the Matter by George Merrill

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

Some, like the accompanying picture, I particularly treasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep Down And Way Up by George Merrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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