View from the Write by George Merrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shadow of Thy Wings by George Merrill

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

My gaze wandered.

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

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

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

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

One of them quickly entered a hole.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Illustration by Jo Merrill

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

 

Waiting by George Merrill

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lost and Found by George Merrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are losses and there are losses.

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

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

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

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

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

Got A Attitude by George Merrill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are we to make of it?

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

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

Rosie Revisited by George Merrill

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 4.02.31 PMThe adjacent picture is one among many images depicting the iconic Rosie the Riveter of WWII fame. The image packs a whole story, especially today, about gender and society. It’s a timely statement. They say pictures are worth a thousand words? This one is worth more. It tells tells several stories.

The portrait represents a woman who is not about traditional feminine business, at least as we’ve known it historically, being agreeable and deferential. She’s in what we think of as a man’s world and appears to belong there unapologetically. She wears the blue denim shirt like the one I wore when as a young man I worked in shipyards. She’s a skilled laborer. Rosie was showcased as the kind of woman who, needing only the chance, was up to doing any man’s job as well if not better.

The woman’s facial expression is serene and confident, almost regal. It’s not the facial expression we’d expect from somebody who was feeling angry and defiant. The way her arms are configured, as I read it, is indeed a protest, but her expression suggests to me she is confident in her defiance, that she’s not just being reactive. She’s affirming who she is, a competent no-nonsense woman not about to be patronized.

Her right hand is placed over her left bicep, her left arm bent with fist held high in the air.

She might be just rolling up her sleeve but as I see it, she is multitasking. This is unmistakably the universal gesture of defiance normally associated with angry men, frequently low-lifes or tough guys. The French, always nuanced in delicate matters, call this gesture the ‘bras de’honneur;’ the Italians who are more proprietary say it’s the ‘Italian salute’ and Americans who are characteristically course know it simply as, ‘up yours.’ Defiance is a distinct part of the message here.

This is not a woman a guy wants to mess with. She knows just who she is. As I interpret this image for our time, I think she’s telling the world; “Let’s get serious. No more eighty cents on every dollar a man makes for the same job. It’s time for equal pay for men and women, and for blacks and whites as well.”

Stereotypical gender roles are rapidly changing. They’re challenging the way men and women relate to one another. The ‘little woman’ being protected by the ‘big guy’ is now an unsustainable fiction. Women’s safety stratagems that once depended on feminine wiles are antiquated. Tears of helplessness and fluttering eyelids are to the modern woman’s armamentarium for survival as the bow and arrow is to todays fighting Marine. For those guys still clinging to their traditional gender prerogatives, this change in social conventions may come as a shock.

According to New Yorker columnist, Lizzie Widdicombe, Dana Shafman, an Arizona native, is the inventor of the Taser party. Similar to the traditional Tupperware party women hosted in their homes, Shafman’s presentations are not about freezer containers or dishes for leftovers. Her wares are displayed on a coffee table like Tupperware. This is, however, serious weaponry proffered for sale, a lucrative, legitimate business, presented with a characteristically feminine touch: hospitality offered in the hostess’ living room, along with cookies, coffee and demonstrations in the uses of the Taser. This changing convention is not good news for men. It will require men to exercise more caution in the mating game and with women in general. Guns used to be strictly a guy thing. Now Mr. Macho can’t be sure when his disgruntled squeeze may be packing a piece.

The Taser, although ostensibly non-lethal, is a weapon like a gun, used by the military and police to subdue suspects who might become violent. In living room presentations to neighborhood women, Shafman showcases Tasers customized to suit the most discriminating woman’s tastes. The C2 Taser, small, “Virginia Slims” as the model is dubbed, has been developed for civilians and some specifically designed for women. Some come in pink, perhaps anticipating today’s confluence of traditional femininity with some of the instruments historically associated with masculinity. Shafman’s customers are promised that if the first shot doesn’t drop the miscreant, not to worry. The Taser can still be used as a stun gun.” Go for the jugular,” Shafman advises her customers.

It’s a new day.

March eighth this year the world observed International Women’s Day. The timing of the observation came at a particularly advantageous time since the occasion was set in sharp relief by the recent contempt with which the president publically denigrated women. It some ways his attitudes gave a greater impetus for increasing public awareness of the long standing issue of gender inequality. For all the wrong reasons his attitudes may have aided in propelling issues of gender inequality into public awareness.

It’s interesting to note that increasingly men and women are “partnering” rather than entering a marriage. Perhaps “husband and wife” still carry enough of the suggestion of inequality to trouble women in particular. The word partner or co-worker suggests equality.

What about good old-fashioned romance, you ask? That’s a subject for another conversation. My guess is that the glow endures among men and women who regard each other as equals.

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.

When It Hits the Fan by George Merrill

In Arkansas, according to an article in the “The Week,” for poor Jesse Newton it really hit the fan.

His robotic vacuum cleaner, programed to run in the early hours of the morning, encountered pile of dog poop left on the floor. The Roomba (robotic vacuum cleaner) indeed sucked it up flinging it all over the house. Newton lamented that his house, “looked like a Jackson Pollock poop painting.”

‘R2D2’ may be lovable as a companion while you’re in space, but he has a dark side. Robots can make a terrible mess of things.

I’m not technologically savvy or good in math. I barely got through algebra and my checkbook looks like Jesse Newton’s house. But I read and hear things and grow concerned. I’d like to share the concern I have about ‘outsourcing’ – a technological and economically complex phenomenon that is radically changing the world’s way of life.

I became aware of outsourcing when Obama was first elected. By then it was taking its toll on American workers. Unemployment was significantly rising. I remember being struck by the ramifications of sending jobs overseas. I kept thinking to myself, well, the nature of a business is to make money. So, if having my widgets made in Mexico at half the price it would cost me in Detroit, it’s a no brainer; I’d go south of the border. Since 2015, some 3,320,213 jobs have been moved overseas – gone south in a manner of speaking. How does anyone deal equitably with a problem as thorny as that?

During his campaign, Trump made the return of jobs his battle standard. I wondered how anyone could reverse this trend. I can’t imagine any industrialist who would elect not to outsource. Trumps own businesses are outsourced so I gather he has had no idea what to do.

Three things are particularly jarring about outsourcing and technology.

Software developer Martin Ford writes: “In 2013 a study by researchers at Oxford concluded nearly half of all occupations in the U.S. are “potentially automatable, perhaps within a decade or two.” That’s not good news for workers.

Writer Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, reports: “In 2014, Facebook acquired Whatsapp for 22 million dollars. When a 22 billion dollar company can fit its entire workforce into a greyhound bus, the concept of surplus labor would seem to have run its course.” Her point: how million dollar industries, while creating radically fewer jobs, can produce more and more.

Another scary scenario is how the countries we’ve outsourced to, are themselves increasingly automating. Industries in China are automating as fast as if not faster than those in America. The jobs we’d want to bring back simply wouldn’t be there.

This brings me back to poor Mr. Newton and his Roomba. At the mercy of his own robotic device, he created far greater problems for himself than the convenience and automation was ultimately worth. The design of this marvelous invention did not take into account the impact it might have on the lives and habits of those who lived in his house. There was Mr. Newton and his dog, both living, breathing creatures with their own ways of being in the world. The dog did what it had to, as did Mr. Newton as he programmed Roomba and turned in for the night. Mr. Newton didn’t see ahead far enough to consider the impact this might have on his way of life. I imagine the poor dog got his nose rubbed in it big time.

It will take great wisdom, political even-handedness, cooperation and rethinking to level this playing field that has increasingly tilted toward industries that favor creating efficiency, and ever larger profit margins. The good news in any of this is that it may force the reintroduction of conscience into capitalism. That is, that a durable paradigm may emerge: that a company’s responsibility and commitment is to provide viable employment for its workers, a good product as well as generating profits.

What to do?

Last Christmas, I received one of the latest electronic devices as a present. I’m a Luddite and my wife is a techy, she likes to broaden my horizons. The device is called an Echo. An Echo is a black cylinder-shaped object that knows all kinds of things. Like a high functioning Jeopardy winner, all you have to do is ask her. You say aloud, “Alexa” and that gets her attention. When a surreal blue light appears at the cylinder’s top you then pose your question. The salutation “Alexa” is not to suggest that Putin has hacked Echo. It’s just her name.

Despairing of this painful outsourcing and technology issue one day I turned to Alexa for understanding, asking her “What is outsourcing, anyway?

She replied: “Outsourcing is contracting out a business process, operational or non core functions to another party.” Then I asked her, “ Is outsourcing a good thing?” She emitted a reflective “Hmm” and replied, “I can’t find an answer to your question.”
Since Alexa was manufactured in China and sold by Amazon, there’s no way she was about to give me a straight answer. If she had, I’ll bet Alexa would have gotten it a lot worse than Mr. Newton’s dog.

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.

 

God Carriers by George Merrill

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said that we are all ‘God carriers.” The divine spark glows within each of us. It’s especially manifest in acts of compassion.

The biblical parable known as the loaves and fishes illustrates the Archbishops’ point.

Jesus is teaching a multitude of people in a wilderness. They’ve traveled great distances to hear him. They’ve been there a long time and soon it will be dark. They have had nothing to eat and home’s far off.

Jesus says to his disciples, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”

The disciples respond anxiously, convinced they don’t have enough. “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asks.

“Seven,” they reply, “and a few small fish.”

Jesus tells the crowd to sit. He blesses the food and the disciples feed the entire crowd. There are even leftovers. You never know what one act inspired by compassion can do. Compassion changes the game.

The parable is often called a miracle since it seems an impossible task. I don’t see the parable as a miracle. That makes it a singularity, a once and for all kind of thing. I understand it more as a guiding metaphor for living expectantly, living in hope. There’s a subtle twist in the question Jesus poses to the disciples: The question’s not what do you need or want, but what do you already have?

What do you and I already possess to meet the rigors of our own lives in this rancorous post-modern world that seems as inhospitable as any wilderness? We have more than we think. We have the spark.

In the recovery community, sustaining sobriety and personal equanimity requires, among other things, taking one’s own inventory. This is an exercise in being clear-eyed about who we are, our faults and the gifts we have. “Don’t compare” is the message. Comparisons lead to pride, resentment or discouragement. In an atmosphere of cynicism it’s hard to believe our own resources are adequate, that we each possess that spark of essential goodness. The burgeoning self-help industry testifies to the phenomenon. Know thyself is tricky. The challenge is ongoing.

I have been reading about three of the world’s great contemporary spiritual leaders, Thich Nhat Hahn, 90, Desmond Tutu, 85, Dalai Lama, 91. All three subscribe to a way of being that I’d describe as compassion in action. Each suffers significant health problems; Thich Nhat Hahn, had a severe stroke; Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama, both have prostate cancer. They’ve all lived through great personal and world tragedies; Thich Nhat Hahn, the ravages of the Viet Nam war; Desmond Tutu, the brutality of the apartheid era in South Africa, and the Dali Lama, China’s takeover of his homeland Tibet and its assault on Buddhism. The three men have no complaints about their illnesses, no wishes to punish adversaries or to exact vengeance. They are committed to the compassionate life, to kindness. They are happy men. Archbishop Tutu and the Dali Lama have a mischievous sense of humor. It’s a perk some get along with the divine spark.

Compassion is neither sympathy nor pity for another who is suffering. I believe compassion is a way of knowing, a knowledge very different, wisdom that’s not gained from the normal exercises of our judging minds. It’s as if in being compassionate we see beyond the two dimensions of the rational mind that governs so much of what we do. In being compassionate we add a third dimension that reveals the depths and breadth of our connections to each other and to our world. It allows for surprises. Imagine how the disciples felt as they were cleaning up that evening after their epic dinner. They saw their world differently, and found themselves in a wholly unexpected place. They saw the spark.

In a book, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu explore the question of how to find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering. The Archbishop observes, “Despite the aberrations, the fundamental thing . . . about people is they are good, and they really want to be good.” The Dali Lama adds, “When bad things happen they become news . . . but they are unusual which is why they become news. We take good for granted.”

Bad news, however we may bemoan it, will surely demand our intention and most of the time will get it. We’re suckers for sensational and lurid headlines.

In weal or woe, compassion and hope are the staples of joyful spirituality. Practicing them makes significant contributions to the healing of our broken world. Archbishop Tutu sees hope as different from optimism. Optimism he regards as too dependent on circumstances, on the ephemerality of our feelings. Hope is deeper, an abiding conviction that all things are possible. Of course, just what the possibilities are remain unclear at first. This is why, in practicing the spiritual life, one learns to watch and wait expectantly and not draw precipitous conclusions.

You never know when or where hope and compassion will save the day.

A student at the University of Pennsylvania, Kiersten Miles, secured a babysitting job. Into her new job for just three weeks, Kiersten discovered that her 9-month-old charge was suffering from a rare liver disease. Baby Talia would die without a liver transplant. Kiersten discovered that her blood type was compatible with Talia’s. Kiersten volunteered to be the donor. The liver transplant was successful and both baby and Kiersten are recovering well. Kiersten was left with a five-inch scar. She says, “A small price to pay for saving a life.”

God carriers may look like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn or Desmond Tutu but can just as easily look like a co-ed baby sitter attending a university.

Actually, they’re everywhere.

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.

Take Heart by George Merrill

Cynics say that positive thinking in the Trump era is equivalent to being in denial or suffering a psychiatric condition called magic thinking. Take heart, it’s not so.

The trick I’ve learned is not to read the papers or visit any other media for at least two hours after rising; the longer the better. Then I have an untroubled look at the sunrise, listening to the early birds flitting about while I savor that first cup of coffee. With an untroubled mind I can think about just how I want to go about my day.

Another strategy to maintain equanimity is to think contextually, that is, keep an eye on the big picture. Beauty is often revealed by its surrounding space, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh once observed about the shells she saw on a beach.

February is a case in point.

I’ve always regarded February as a blah month – cold and wet and dreary. But, taking the long look I now see it differently. Consider this: February 14th is Valentines Day. February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day. It’s also American Heart Month as well as Black History Month. The only downer is that February includes Presidents’ Day. Recently it’s felt more like a wake than a celebration. Still, my challenge is to remain positive, look for the silver lining in the darkest cloud, and don’t resort to keeping my head in the sand.

Valentines Day was especially rewarding this year because I remembered it on my own. I was the first to initiate a congratulatory kiss and tell my wife I loved her. I know she welcomed it, but I saw fleeting skepticism in her eyes. She may have been surprised that I remembered. She made the attached card for me.

February 17th is Random Acts of Kindness Day. Then I was still on holiday in Puerto Rico. Like many privileged Yankees I stay at a resort where some of the heart-rending poverty remains invisible. In many ways it’s an alternative universe, and if I ever had any illusions about inequality, being on the streets of Humacao as well as on the streets of our own capitol, they are quickly dispelled.

When I first arrived, I had occasion to leave the resort to buy supplies in Humacao. At a light I was approached, one after the other, by no less that four indigent men. Each held a plastic cup in his hand.

Their appearance betrayed desperate need. As each approached, I realized I only had twenties in my wallet and had made no provision for this. As they moved their cups in my direction I shrugged my shoulders and they passed me. The men betrayed no apparent anger or judgment. I believe I saw in their eyes a silent resignation, the blank stare of hopelessness. Having heard of a man in New York who did this, I elected to be sure next time when I left the house I’d be prepared to give each a dollar. This probably made no difference in their plight, but out of guilt and compassion I felt a need to at least act, to take their plight seriously enough to acknowledge it. Each time I gave, I had an odd feeling. I think it reduced that sense of guilt that goes with privilege, but the other feeling seemed different. As we momentarily looked each other in the eye I noticed I felt less alienated and more aware. This was a stranger whom I met only once and probably would never see again. The feeling was faintly reminiscent of a sense of belonging, that both of us were connected in a fundamental way – children of God. Moments like this make me appreciate the exercise of compassion – and the organizational commitment – that Julie Lowe and the volunteers of the Talbot Interfaith Shelter have created. Random acts of kindness are good as far as they go. Compassionate acts inspired by committed and accountable people is goodness at it’s best.

During February we celebrate Black History month, usually emphsizing the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Gandhi, Dr. King showed the world a more excellent way. I continue to be awed by the care and planning that the early civil right activists practiced. It was as disciplined as boot camp, giving as much thought and respect to adversaries as to advocates. The movement was one example of not only the power of goodness and personal sacrifice to reach the human heart, but to also change oppressive social structures. Social revolutions are notoriously bloody. The civil rights movement had casualties – King himself – but his life and mission changed the world in a remarkably bloodless way.

February is also American Heart Month. Our hearts are our most loyal supporters and our closest friends. We can’t live without one. They have an awesome responsibility and even when they suffer malfunctions, with the right treatment, they keep on truckin’. Try this on for size: In a seventy-two year life span, a heart beats approximately 2,800,000,000 times. Of our other organic functions, our breath comes in behind the heart but still at a whopping 530,156,808 breaths. In times of erotic excitement and especially during presidential campaigns both numbers may increase substantially.

This brings us finally to February 20th, which is Presidents Day this year. It’s usually a celebration, but this year I think confusion abounds in the White House and President Trump seems angry all the time about one thing or another. I haven’t found this President’s Day as festive as last year when President Obama was in office. He was fun, articulate, with a sense of humor, even self-deprecating humor – “I’m the guy with the big ears,” he’d say. President Obama seemed to really care for us, as though he held in his heart the people he was elected to serve.

Oops! See, I’ve done it, dumping on Trump again, right into the negativity I’m encouraging us to rise above. Well, getting back on task I count as a blessing that Vladimir Putin didn’t become our 45th President.

Take heart, friends. Count your blessings, however modest. It promotes warm hearts and fewer visits to your cardiologist.

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

The Work of Dreams by George Merrill

Imagination is the stage where our dreams make their appearances. Dreams rarely materialize in the way we imagine. They will take us instead to an unexpected place.

At fifteen years of age, I dreamed of sailing around the world in an eleven-foot, cat rigged sailing dinghy called a Penguin

There were two problems: one, that the dinghy was my sister’s. The other, given its size and freeboard I probably wouldn’t have made it across Raritan Bay. I’d worry about that later.

First I’d need to strike a deal with my sister to get use of the Penguin. I didn’t tell her about my plan. By agreeing to paint and caulk the Penguin every spring I was promised regular access to it. Maintaining the dinghy in Bristol fashion was my ticket to high adventure.

I am a dreamer. I was a kid that could make himself believe that wearing the fireman’s hat made him a firefighter. I needed to take my dreams as far as I could without doing myself in. I had lots of room to maneuver in my imagination. In reality, I practiced sailing the dinghy after school. I’d sail solo (there was hardly room for two, anyway) from Great Kills Harbor up along the south shore of Staten Island to South Beach (not far where the Verrazano Bridge is today) and then back. I had no auxiliary power. Still on every trip I made it home under sail ghosting along on light southerlies. The winds favored me. Auspicious, I thought.

On those brief excursions late in the day, I’d watch merchant ships making their way through the Narrows to and from New York Harbor. With some mental slight of hand, I could make the Brooklyn Shoreline and the shore of Sheepshead Bay disappear. I imagined myself hunkered down, the tiller in hand, alone in my little craft far out at sea, passing big merchant ships. I repeat, imagination knows no boundaries.

Reading Joshua Slocum’s epic solo circumnavigation of the globe on his sailboat, Spray, inspired me. His story haunted my imagination, and in particular one sketch in the book. It depicted Slocum lying in the bunk of his cabin, an oil lamp over his head. He was reading. The Spray could be rigged to sail straight courses for great distances without being managed from the helm. Slocum, then, could rest below deck. I saw a scene of tranquility – like someone sitting and reading before a blazing hearth during a blizzard. In Slocum’s case, he was crossing a wide and dangerous sea with ease and equanimity. It was the perfect image of sanctuary that, off and on, I dream of. It’s about discovering that I’m right with the world just where I am and just as it is.

For my plan to sail around the world, of course I’d have no way of knowing exactly where I was. Celestial navigation was the way. Slocum wrote about sightings he took with a sextant. He used an alarm clock as a chronometer. He could locate himself on the ocean by looking heavenward at the sun, moon, stars and planets. There’s a fundamental connection between the motion of the spheres and the paths we follow here on earth. It’s said, “Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.” I would find that connection by following my dreams . . . and mastering geometry.

I signed up for a course in celestial navigation at the Hayden Planetarium. Every Wednesday evening I took the ferry to Manhattan and the subway to 96th Street. Capt. Lee was our instructor. I had no aptitude for math. I was failing most of my math courses at school. Celestial Navigation is all about mathematics. The physician Lewis Thomas once wondered whether mathematics was the language of God. If it was, I had trouble understanding it. My romantic dream gave me the courage to try learning geometry with the added perk of maybe hearing the voice of God. I had lots of incentives.

Fortunately all the computations I needed were worked out in publications like the Nautical Almanac, HO 211 and 214, so that I only needed, in a sense, to connect the dots.

The still point in my immediate universe I learned was the North Star. Everything turned around it. I actually saw the still point. During one lesson, Capt. Lee had arranged for the Planetarium to darken the dome. The projections on the dome accelerated the rotation of the stars and planets. While Polaris stood unmoved, I could witness the still point of my universe while watching breathlessly, as the rest of it hurled by above me.

Of course I never sailed around the world. I did, however, complete my navigation course and took my first sight.

With a bubble sextant I purchased at an Army-Navy surplus store, I took a noon sighting on the sun from my back yard on Staten Island and plotted the coordinates. This located me somewhere in North Jersey –forty miles from where I was – not bad for a first time. No matter. It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.

They say dreamers have their heads in the clouds. We do. We balance our heads somewhere between eternity and immortality. Our dreams rarely materialize as they are imagined. They do lead to new and unexpected realms. Later on, I discovered how dreams would guide me over the uncharted terrain of my life that, sooner or later, I’d have to navigate.

Mine was a good dream. I now understand how the vastness of the sea and the eternity of the heavens inspire adventure and grand dreams, as well as art, poetry and music. My dream impacted me in still another way: whenever preachers say, “Let us bow our heads in prayer,” I can’t. My head turns reflexively upward. I am so sure I’ll stand a better chance of seeing the still point of it all when my head is in the clouds.

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.