Solitude by George Merrill

I walk frequently, more so recently. The prevailing anger and dissention in the atmosphere I find debilitating. I walk to settle my mind. I feed my soul by reconnecting with the beauty and goodness that permeates the world.

One path I like runs along the perimeter of St. Michaels. The other day, while walking, I saw a large dog trotting along by itself. The dog had a beautiful coat of thick white and gray fur. He watched me walk by, interested in my presence. It’s unusual to see a dog alone or not on a leash. I felt momentarily cautious when, after I passed him, he ran to me. He scrupulously sniffed me out – I guess I smelled acceptable because he then pranced around and started jumping up on me. I gently urged him down. I stroked him under the chin, mumbling totally mindless endearments. I knew that he heard music in my words, sensed my pleasure in the meeting and so the words were really peripheral to our encounter. The dog knew that I liked him. Words weren’t necessary.

I walked on while he wandered off into a stand of trees on the side of the path. I kept thinking of his gray eyes. This dog’s eyes were beautiful to see, like the soft and unblemished slate gray one sees on the undersides of clouds on sunny days. Was it the friendliness of the dog that determined how I felt about his eyes or were they simply lovely eyes?

Occasionally I’d turn around just to see if he were following me. I hoped he was. I saw no trace of him so I assumed he was off to make another acquaintance. For a moment, I felt let down.That day was particularly cold. I was alone on the path. Typically, there would be others I’d acknowledge with a nod – fellow walkers, many of whom would be walking their dogs. This was mostly a solitary occasion.

Solitude is an occasion for heightened awareness; Strangely, in solitude I’m made aware of how connected I am to all the life around me. I don’t believe I’m reclusive – I do not like feeling lonely. Solitude, however, is different from being lonely or feeling isolated; on the contrary, in solitude I find the space – inner and outer – to experience my solidarity with the life around me.

There’s something about meeting a creature other than human while alone; it could be a bird, bugs, foxes and even turkeys that have recently proliferated the woods around St. Michaels; it’s as if the meeting of the two worlds is unencumbered by distractions, or the need I might have to attend to another person who’s with me. We can be with each other, these strangers, in every sense of the word. Adam must have had great fun naming the animals.

Years ago, during the great ice storm on the Shore I had a similar encounter with a deer. Ice was building up everywhere, making paths slippery and downing tree limbs. It was dangerous. My neighbor Dot, who’d lost one leg to diabetes, was eighty plus and housebound. I walked through the woods to her house to see that she had food and kerosene for her heater. Power was sure to go. A deer appeared on the path in front of me. Ears as erect as antennae, she stood in the path and looked straight at me. I stopped. I moved toward her. She backed up, but didn’t bolt as I expected. Then I stepped back, and she moved forward. She seemed young and appeared to want to play. She appeared to limp.

I started muttering endearments to her: “Hey Bambi, what’s a gal like you doing out on a day like this?” She cocked her head to one side as if she hadn’t heard me correctly or thought I was a nut. With a kind of retreat and advance, we stepped toward and away from each other in concert until I made my way to Dot’s house. The deer retreated back into the woods.

Dot was in good shape. “Thanks, George, but got plenty of kerosene, bourbon and cigarettes,” she assured me. No better way to face the elements, I’d say.

Walking back through the woods to my house, I saw how the storm grew worse. The wind increased, the rain froze on all it fell upon. Rain ran down on the inside of my slicker chilling me. Walking was treacherous.

There was the deer, as if waiting for me. She was off to the side now. I walked slowly, babbling to her all the while, but not stopping. She didn’t move, but watched me pass by. She followed me for a few steps. Before entering my house, I saw she was looking at me, as if to say, ‘Stay out and play with me for a while.’ I waved goodbye and went in.

The wind howled that night. I heard trees falling; first a painful groan and then a thunderous crash. It was nasty.

In the morning, the sun shone. It illuminated the accumulated ice on tree limbs, on everything, and the world appeared as if sculpted by a glazier. Everything sparkled brilliantly in the sunlight, a scene set against a deep blue sky.

I went outside looking around. By the small stream between Dot’s house and mine, I saw the deer. She was dead. She had a twisted hoof. I could see she was crippled. I don’t know how she died.

I stooped over her. Her eye, deep and dark, reflected a billowing white cloud high above her as if she could now see something well beyond the constraints that life had imposed on her. She saw an open and free space that went on forever. I had a regret. I wished that the day before, I’d stayed out a little longer and played with her.

Solitude, in unexpected ways, makes us friends with those with whom we share this planetary space.

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

In From the Cold by George Merrill

We’ve had some cold weather recently. And then snow. If anyone had doubts about whether mother nature calls the shots, there’s little question now.

It was cold enough so that our creek froze. In small pockets on the creek where some water remained unfrozen, hosts of geese huddled together in the water, feather to feather. They were unusually quiet. Normally they chatter all the time, like frequent flyers in a bar comparing their flights. I noticed one morning how the geese had their heads tucked under their wings. Was it to keep their heads warm or was it a gesture like the ostriches’ that hide their heads in the ground when they feel vulnerable? In either case they were remarkably still, undoubtedly preserving heat.

The leaves of the large Aucuba bush in the front of our house curled almost in half and I assume, like the geese, was trying to preserve as much warmth as it could. Only the leafless trees, conifers, and the holly seemed unperturbed with the arctic air.

Of my regular sweaters – and I wear sweaters all the time in winter – not faux sweaters made of synthetics or even cotton, but ones made of real wool from real sheep; none kept me warm enough. I hauled out an old woolen sweater I’d bought years ago in Baltimore. The sweater was made in Ecuador. It weighs about as much as a flak jacket. The sheep in Ecuador must stay warm all the time. I’m good and toasty in that sweater.

Arctic air can be lethal for those who don’t enjoy the basic services and conveniences that most Americans enjoy. A service I enjoy routinely, can be a matter of life and death for those who try to get by without it?

I sleep at night in a house with a temperature of about 60 degrees. I have plenty of blankets. I get up in the morning and turn the heat up to 68 degrees. I use the bathroom, flush its wastes, turn the tap water on to brush my teeth. In the kitchen, I draw more water to make coffee; I turn on my electric stove to make breakfast without being in any way encumbered or put out by the freezing temperatures outside. I take what I need from a well-stocked refrigerator. After breakfast, I put on the clothes for the day. The day I wrote this essay I saw two doctors- one to check my eyes and the other an ear infection. One appointment had been in the works for weeks, the other took me only a phone call and I got in the same day. For any obligations beyond the home, I own a dependable car.

In short, I am assured of a warm place, food, safety, power and clean water. I have accessible medical care, transportation and a home to which I can return in all seasons and be comfortable. I have been resident in the community long enough to know people and I have friends that I can depend on.

In short, by virtue of my circumstances I am one of the millions of Americans who in fact live comparatively privileged lives when measured against the world’s population. I have done nothing to earn any of these luxuries – they are not rewards of any kind – they are a part of the good fortune of being a middle-class American citizen that offers many opportunities.

I find freezing weather intimidating. I realize when it gets so bitterly cold that my well-being is derived from all kinds of services and from the people I am fortunate enough to have access to. Americans talk a lot about their “rights.” I don’t consider any of these things as a right; I see them as blessings, mutual blessings meant to be shared with others by those of us whose circumstances have assured us of many blessings.

The luxury of having privilege can affect people two ways. There are those whose good fortunes inure them to the sufferings of the disenfranchised. They feel indifference if not contempt. In others, the blessings they themselves enjoy inspire a sense of gratitude and with that, a desire to share their blessings with others.

Talbot Interfaith Shelter is one icon of blessing in our community that witnesses to how, among the privileged, there are enough who care and are committed to provide shelter for those who have none. To use a Christmas metaphor, TIS (Talbot Interfaith Shelter) offers room at the inn which is a blessing at any time but especially when temperatures plummet.

To treat the blessings of one’s life as entitlements is a significant character flaw in the American psyche. “I got my rights” is a common refrain. It’s the product of “I worked for everything I have.” No one ever does it all on his own. There were all kinds of helpers along the way. A life of economic security and social capital can often bring out the worst. The ego converts its privileges and good fortune into entitlements. There’s no thought given to blessings.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, defending the recent tax bill’s lessening of the estate tax on the 2% of wealthiest Americans said; the “rich people invest their money” as opposed to those who are “just spending every darn penny they have whether on booze, or women, or movies.” Sen. Orin Hatch, in a similar vein was quoted as saying it made sense to cut corporate taxes and reduce Obamacare and other safety-net spending, since the government spends trillions “to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger.”

The implications are painfully clear: the rich are deserving for their virtue; the poor are moral failures and therefore undeserving.

In my youth, a parent’s eagerness to have resistant children eat their spinach was often to tell them about all the starving people in India. The strategy wasn’t very skillful. Guilt rarely induces generosity but it sure will make you hate spinach.

Right now, the socio- political climate is edging us along a “me first” path. Americans are better than that.

With all the good fortune Americans routinely enjoy we don’t have to leave anyone out in the cold.

And that’s a blessing in itself.

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.

Guide Us To Thy Perfect Light by George Merrill

The journey of the Magi, the legend of the Three Kings or Epiphany is celebrated on the twelfth day of Christmas. It’s a significant part of the Christian story; it’s about light, about love and about discovery.

The day was special for me on that January 6th of 1947. I have never forgotten it. I remember it more fondly than Christmas days or even more vividly than the anticipatory thrill I’d feel on Christmas Eve.

During that Epiphany, the confluence of two streams met; a young boy’s emerging sexuality, and the majesty of high church liturgy. It was in those sublime moments I sensed for the first time something that I would not fully understand until much later in my life. Even now, I can’t say I understand it, but I can feel it. What a powerful influence love and light have in our lives. Love, like light, waxes and wanes, but it always returns. Someone always shows up to rekindle both in us.

The Feast of the Epiphany or the Three Kings commemorates the journey of the three wise men, who at the bidding of King Herod sought the whereabouts of Jesus. They followed the star “in the East,” found him “in a manger” but, being warned in a dream, did not tell Herod whom they later learned was planning to kill Jesus.

I sang in the choir as a boy. On Thursday nights Franny, Mrs. Sontag and I would walk to choir practice and then home again. I was thirteen. Franny was eighteen, a tall, pretty blond. I had a crush on her. She was nice to talk to. She and Mrs. Sontag listened and took me seriously, not like I was just a kid. Mrs. Sontag was old (probably ten years younger than I am now). She smelled of cigar smoke. Her husband never attended church. He watched TV and smoked all day. I think she was lonely. I liked having these grown up friends. I felt, well, grown up.

Epiphany was special. For me it marked the last colorful church festival before the bleak winter set in. At the end of the Eucharist, we would be given a small candle to take home with us. Each candle was lit from one of the altar candles. We were to take our candles home, while keeping the candle burning on our way. We were symbolically manifesting the light of Christ to the world.

Mrs. Sontag wasn’t in church that day. After lighting our candles, Franny and I set out for home. I liked Mrs. Sontag, but this day I liked more being with Franny by myself.

The day was cold, but not windy.

We chatted as we walked, carefully cupping the candles lest a breeze extinguish them. Franny walked close to me. I was conscious of the dark blue overcoat she wore and her hair, which protruded from under her cap, contrasting with the blue of the coat. She looked pretty and I smelled a fragrance like lemon around her which seemed to suit her well. It suited me well, too.

We kept our candles burning as we walked and talked. I was aware of Franny and luxuriating in the closeness and the sweetness she aroused in me while at the same watching my candle diligently. I wanted to make it all the way home and still have a lit candle. I almost made it.

When we arrived at the street where Franny would head home and I’d continue on for a block, a breeze extinguished my candle. I felt badly. I almost made to the end. I looked sorrowfully at Franny and since she was older than I was and knew more, I asked her if she thought Fr. Rogers would be disappointed in me for not keeping the candle burning. I was concerned that if I were to ask Franny to light the candle from hers that might mean I’d be cheating since getting home with the candle lit was our task. Franny told me that she was sure he would not mind. He said nothing about relighting it, anyway. “Just get home with the light still burning,” she said confidently. I was relieved.

We stopped at the corner. Franny drew closer to me. She extended her candle and after a couple of attempts, the flame quickened and I was good to go. But I really didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay. It was, however, time to get going. I said goodbye. She turned and made her way up the street. I watched her for a few moments and then went for home . . . with candle burning and a confused heart. I had completed my mission for Christ with only one small glitch, but there was a feeling that remained and I was not sure what to make of it.

Now I think of this day as one of those singular moments of revelation in my life. They just happen. An increasing awareness of my emerging sexuality and a nascent sense of the mystery that’s conveyed in Christianity’s ancient rites and rituals converged in me that day. I felt a sweet tenderness and an intense longing. For just what I didn’t know. I only knew I wanted to be close to Franny and serve God by sharing the light. Now I recognize how I was being moved by the elemental forces of attraction the way everything in the universe is governed by attractions. The planets move in their orbits by mutual attractions as they course along their paths through the cosmos. We are drawn to others by erotic attraction. In the liturgies of religious celebrations of God’s actions in the world, the extravagant beauty to which they witness leaves me awed and wondering about what it all means.

And then there’s light. I’ve watched sunflowers turn in a field, inching their way around to keep their faces to the sun as if the sun had cast a spell. I’ve seen infants lying in a crib, enchanted, with eyes riveted on a mobile turning above them, the mobile dancing with tiny points of light. People rarely weary of the magic of sunrises and sunsets, nor of a full moon or starry sky. Everything in the universe begins with light. Candlelight is the preferred accessory to romance.

I took the accompanying photograph. It’s of a seasonal decoration we’ve had for years. It depicts the journey of the Magi – following the light of the star. It has no pretense to art. It’s like a child’s plaything. What endears it to me is its innocence. The innocence of childhood may be the last time you or I have had an unobstructed vision to be thoroughly awed and to see clearly into the mystery of how life unfolds.

Perhaps only in those times of innocence and unknowing is our vision sufficiently unencumbered to see deeply into light in all its purity and majesty?

The final line in hymn popularly sung during Epiphany ends with these words: “Oh, star of wonder, star of night . . . Guide us to Thy perfect light.”

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.

Starting Over by George Merrill

In my first attempts to write a personal essay appropriate to the New Year, I fell into a trap. As most of you know about writers, their first drafts are awful. That’s’ why it takes so many rewrites to get it to work and if not, at least get it representative of what an author truly feels – not just some attempt at posturing.

I began with a theme in mind. The theme was “starting over.” I thought the new year is one kind of ‘starting over’ and starting over is also an old Buddhist teaching about how we can skillfully deal with our efforts to, well, start over. It specifically refers to deepening our spirituality simply by learning how to not quit in discouragement, but to just start over.

The teaching guides me in ways to gain the riches of the spirit and self-control by minimizing aspects of my life that work against it. This always requires a change in how I normally go about things. Typically – and New Year’s Eve is one good example – after the first drink, I will swear to either give up something or to embark on some new discipline. The giving up invariably involves certain foods and uses of alcohol or tobacco; chocolate is a big one as is resolving to abstain from certain disagreeable habits like flipping the bird at pokey drivers creeping down the St. Michaels Road. Having only two lanes makes such people really irritating. Vowing to exercise regularly is another frequent resolution.

New Year’s resolutions don’t last. There’s good reasons for that. They’re not undertaken for substantial reasons, or to say it differently, they are undertaken for egoistic motives. Just why I choose to forswear some particular food or drink, or even undertake to change other habits is frequently driven by negative motives rather than an aspiration to more noble estates. Topping the list is a desire to lose weight and look good. ‘Because I am fat’ becomes an issue of pride more often than it is a concern for good health. In fact, I’d offer the thought that most New Year’s Eve resolutions I’ve undertaken are to prove something to myself. I long to prove that I possess strength of character and resolute will. I am not, as I secretly fear, a wuss or wimp. I have character, determination.

I will own that there are people who by sheer force of will can alter their undesirable traits, but I would not want to live with them. I notice they remarry a lot. Maybe they don’t smoke or drink or eat fatty foods, run every morning and drink ten glasses of water daily but the very undesirable character traits that led them into bad habits in the first place, remain. They’re not overindulging anymore, they’re self-righteous and know everything, instead.

But back to my problem in writing an essay appropriate to the new year.

As I started writing, I began thinking about the year as I’ve experienced it since last January. The trap: I just grew more and more angry. In a snit, I typed away furiously about how we’re being jerked around by a flood of mindless tweets with which the White House floods America’s cyberspace; I thought of a federal judge charged with pedophilia whose Christian constituents defended him by comparing him to Joseph, the father of the Holy Family. After all, Joseph dated Mary, Jesus mother and Mary was well Joseph’s junior. So, what’s the problem? It’s beyond crazy, that’s the problem.

And then I remembered the president of a Christian College who encouraged his students to carry a concealed weapon so they might be prepared to shoot Muslims. I felt as though I was flying over the cuckoos’ nest. Felt, hell, I was flying over a cuckoos’ nest.

At lunch, I mentioned to my wife, Jo, how worked up I’d been while writing. As I told her she assumed a look, like I’ve seen on the faces of those who’d just eaten a bad oyster.

“What?” I said defensively.

“Why rehash what everyone knows anyway? Is there something helpful, something different instead that you can say that might help us live through this with some dignity and hope?”
So much for St’ Paul’s admonitions that wives defer to their husbands. It’s a new ball game.

That’s just what the last year has been instructing us, instructing me. It is a new ball game.
My challenge is to hold still to the ideal that how we play the game is as important or more so than winning. The trap I fell into was identifying with the aggressor. Ranting against the absurdities of this administration is simply doing the same thing as I claim to be denouncing. I’m just firing off another round of mindless tweets.

In situations where people have been treated abusively or contemptuously, there is a tendency to assume the vicious qualities of the perpetrators. In short, I want to unleash on others, what they have, or I imagine they have, visited on me. It’s one variation on revenge.

Starting over is a significant discipline in Buddhist spirituality. It recognizes the deep desire to do something good, be something worthwhile, but invariably to slip back into old habits. It’s discouraging. The tendency is to be self-critical, and feel inept in meeting the challenge. If we slip often enough, eventually we just quit.

I want to start over again this next year by attempting to be as wise as a serpent, but gentle as a dove. I mean by that looking directly at the evils and absurdities that surround me daily, but with a clear eye and gentle spirit. And if I get riled up and want to go on a new rant, just remember to go back and start over. I then keep my focus on what’s important for me to be about and not remain stuck and focused on the provocateurs.

There’s a phrase that I’ve known for years. One part is from psalm 37. The latter part I don’t know but together they make the point beautifully:
“Fret not for the evil doer, lest thou be moved to do evil.”
May we all gain the grace to live wisely and courageously in the coming year. And, if we slip and fall into old ways, let’s just start over.

Blessings in the New Year.

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.

That They All May Be One by George Merrill

The title of this essay I took from the Gospel of John. It states Jesus wish for universal reconciliation.

I watched a talk show rerun recently. Joe Biden was being interviewed. He discussed his book, “Promise Me, Dad,” dealing with the death of his son, Beau. One 0f the women present and conducting the interview was Meghan McCain. Meghan McCain, John Mc- Cain’s daughter, is a former host on Fox news, a cradle Republican and one of the hosts of the talk show, The View. Biden’s book (I have not read it) is a grief work of hope that describes the profound sense of loss Biden felt for his son and the obligation he felt to honor his memory.

The interview was poignant. It told an important story of its own.

In the initial minutes of the interview, Biden and Ms. McCain were seated with a person between them. As the conversation developed, Biden spoke of how his son (who died of the same brain cancer that John McCain suffers now) had always found comfort in Meghan’s father’s bravery. As he spoke, Meghan grew teary. Biden then rose and seated himself next to her. He took her hand and shared with her some fond memories he and his son had of her father. In the political arena, John McCain and Joe Biden had done battle with each other. Each had great respect for the other. They were political adversaries and very loyal friends. They enjoyed a relationship with dignity.

I do not recall being moved by anything recently as much as I did watching this interview. Certainly, talking of our losses touches us all deeply; mourning is the one feeling that stabs us to the core and a feeling every one of us understands. Perhaps even more than laughter, grief is the universal emotion we all share. However, there was something else about the interview that haunted me. I couldn’t identify it right away.

Joe Biden, by almost all accounts, is a representative human being. Professionally, he is regarded as an honest man and a skillful politician. He has a sense of humor, engages people in respectful ways and has passion for his ideas. He has integrity, is clear but gentle in his opinions and has a deft manner of handling complicated feelings tactfully – whether they’re political or emotional. He possesses that redeeming quality of being able to poke fun at himself. He talks freely about his big mouth in the way president Obama used to speak of his own big ears. It’s the kind of playful self-denigration people who are secure in their own skin are able to indulge.

Christmas, now upon us, is a paradoxical time. It’s a festive season. It’s also a time of mourning. Despite all the lights, bright colors, parties, gestures of good will and aspirations to joy, an undertone of melancholy prevails. I think one reason for this is that Christmas as a holiday is an anniversary event. It occurs yearly at a designated time. Anniversaries induce memories. Christmastide is strongly associated with attitudes of kindness and generosity and of being close to the people we love. An anniversary event like Christmas also has a darker side; it stands as a yearly remembrance of the people who are not here now, but with whom we shared this event in the past. We are made aware of what we’ve lost; the festivity’s bright lights cast dark shadows. There’s always sadness about that. Joe Biden knows about loss. Meghan McCain knows that for her, the final curtain of her grief will fall. They mourn together.

One of Joe Biden’s character traits is his personal warmth. When he got up and went to sit next to Meghan McCain, took her hand and spoke softly to her as she wept, I almost wept, too. It was an image of male tenderness in a powerful man that is so different from the images reported in the daily news we hear or read about. We are besieged with relentless tales of abuse that men with wealth, social capital and political influence inflict on others. It seems to be a trickle-down effect, originating from the highest echelons, seeping through the political fabric and down into the various major and minor industry captains and entertainment celebrities. The frequency of the sordid reports would seem almost to testify to behavior now become routine, the kind we’d once have called unacceptable.

Who is left for any of us to look up to, to inspire us?

In that brief exchange between Biden and McCain I saw a possibility, a hope for the way we can be with one another. Tenderly and kindly. I am confident that for anyone who saw Biden take his seat next to Meghan McCain in that clip, there was no way this could be construed as posturing. It was a genuine gesture, based on a history of trusting relationships, demonstrating the kind of authenticity that has been in painfully short supply in the political figures we are confronted with daily in news media. There is so little trust evident, so little tenderness. While women today may be witnessing to the ideal of dignity and respect we need to emulate, it’s the good men that are hard to find.

My attempt here is not to lionize Joe Biden or Meghan McCain, but only to cite his decency and McCain’s grace and suggest how people who do have power and social capital and are fundamentally honest and compassionate, can create good will and facilitate healing, personal and collective. They become agents of reconciliation.
The Christian message its’s core is a drama of reconciliation. The tale recounts the struggle to achieve reconciliation with God and with each other. We become reconciled to God by reconciling to each other. It isn’t accomplished by mouthing pious clichés nor by overlooking differences or even by accommodating political, religious, racial and ethnic distinctions.

When we are able to see in others, the wounds and brokenness we have known in our own lives, we meet each other in deeper and more loving ways.

I believe I saw in that clip some a tender and respectful moment between a man and a woman, a conservative republican and a liberal democrat, a devout catholic and a practicing Baptist.

I think our alienation from each other is weighing heavily on us. We hunger for closeness, to be able to share our true humanity with one another.

That one day we may all be one remains my vision of hope.

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.

Following the Scent by George Merrill

Working on a bathroom cabinet recently, I accidentally knocked a bottle of Old Spice After Shave off the shelf. It’s an old American classic. I hadn’t used in at least thirty years. It dropped onto the sink. The lotion was in one of the original porcelain bottles and while it didn’t break, some spilled on my hand. I was surprised how just a brief smell of the shave lotion awakened such vivid and contradictory images and emotions.

I smelled the scent of Old Spice first in 1950. I remember it distinctly because during the summer that June, I was hospitalized for a hernia repair. While I was in the hospital, North Korea invaded South Korea. The man in the next bed to me used Old Spice after he shaved and I liked the smell. What gave the scent of the shave lotion its import for me was that while I found pleasure in the way it smelled, I felt an ominous cloud forming over my world at the same time. Five years after WWII ended, America was going back to war.

The power of smells to evoke deep memories is legendary. Of the five senses, I suspect we give the least thought to smell. Yet our olfactory system may well be one of the most significant senses for preserving particular moments in our lives.

Dogs and other animals check each other out regularly through smell. Dogs will go up to dogs of either gender – complete strangers – and boldly sniff them out. For dogs, it takes only a few whiffs to decide who’s your friend or your enemy.

Some scientists believe kissing among human beings is a legacy from the primal times in our evolution. Then, like other critters of the animal kingdom, we once practiced sniffing as the preferred way of getting to know others. Kissing is what has evolved from our ancient ways of sniffing. It’s a sure fire way of getting an idea of whether you’re well matched with this someone you may have just met. Kissing on the first date may not be rushing things at all, but a simple test for determining compatibility.

Perfumes are marketed typically with the goal of making women alluring to men. Harley Davidson, however, had a brief stint of making cologne specifically for bikers. I assume bikers are mostly men. I was not clear whether the cologne was to make a biker more alluring to another biker or to women in general. I can’t imagine at 55 mph on the open road that the scent of the cologne would last more than an hour on the biker. In either case, the cologne turned out to be a flop.

Skunks have perfected odor as their ultimate weapon. Like a Taser, their spray will stop any predator in his tracks – although not kill him. The skunk is one of the world’s few creatures that has no natural enemies. Because of a skunk’s capacity to make a big stink when provoked, it’s essentially left alone. In a way, the skunk makes a case for the power of smell in conducting our lives safely; even though I’ve rarely seen a skunk when one has been killed along the highway, I smell him long before I see him, if I seem him at all. I instantly want to distance myself from him either dead or alive. The skunk stays safe by establishing secure boundaries, and does it through the nose at that.

Marc Antony, in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, speaks these words: “The evil that men do, lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” When it comes to smells, this is also true of mice.

I bought a Hyundai last year. About six months after buying the car, we found mouse droppings in the interior and then a week of two later discovered a dead mouse on the passenger’s side floor. My wife and I couldn’t be sure whether it came from Korea or it was an American mouse. We disposed of the mouse and a month later the car developed a dreadful odor. The mouse had nested somewhere in the car (we never found where) and its brood eventually perished after the mouse died. The good these mice performed during their lives was interred with their bones. We were left with the evil odor that a year later still lingers along with the scent of air purifiers I tried – smells only slightly less gross than mice remains.

Speaking of good and evil, medicine has established tobacco as bad for us, but I must confess I have always found the scent of cigarette, pipe or cigar smoke, homey. I grew up in the forties and fifties when everyone smoked and if they didn’t, someone in the household did. I smoked cigarettes, pipes and cigars until I was about fifty and quit. I decided I wanted to live.

Regarding smoke, my olfactory senses make some distinctions, however. I find the residual scent of a woman who smokes cigarettes nostalgic and sweet. I can think only of my mother. The smell of a cigar freshly lit fires up fond memories of Thanksgiving when my Grandfather would first light his White Owl cigar after dinner. The charm of residual cigar smoke diminished as the day wore on, however. By evening it smelled worse than the mouse remains in my Hyundai. Uncle Arthur smoked Bond Street pipe tobacco and generally I found pipe tobacco of all kinds very aromatic and agreeable. I confess the scent of tobacco smoke, excepting stale cigar smoke, is pleasing.

The day after my discovery of the Old Spice and thinking about how various smells bring back memories, I thought I’d splash some on my face for old times’ sake. It still smelled aromatic, but it may not have been helpful to my memory bank; North Korea has recently been making rumbling noises about attacking America.

Going up in smoke like this does not encourage warm memories.

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.

Phubbing by George Merrill

Two of our children and four of our grandchildren joined us for Thanksgiving. The grandchildren, girls, range 17 years on down. Early in the day everyone winds up in the den. Most like to watch the Thanksgiving parade and, later in the day (why I have no idea) the dog show and so the room can get packed. The den’s not that big.

I’d been in the kitchen paring vegetables and after finishing up I walked into the den. Except for my wife and me, both our children and the four grandchildren were in the den – three girls and their Dad were on the sofa; Mom and one grandchild sat in chairs. The television was on. Ostensibly everyone was watching the parade or, in a perfect world, would have been.

Three of the grandchildren were texting. One was playing a video game on her iPhone and Mom and Dad were either texting or getting text messages. As for the television screen, it may as well have been blank. As for the audio part, it could just as soon have been the sound of the one clapping.

In the interests of full disclosure I confess I’m a Luddite and while I love my family, I find this behavior abominable. There’s no other word for it . . . well, maybe one and I learned of it only recently. It’s called phubbing and it is reaching epidemic proportions. The word is a conflation of phone and snubbing. It refers to individuals interacting with their iPhone (or other devices) rather than engaging with the human beings that they may happen to be with.

Phubbing is addictive. More and more and more people find it hard to resist. This is a serious. The phubbers have the frightening potential to transform us from homo sapiens, the typically gregarious social animals that we are, into hyped up phubbees, zoned out on the latest news blip, phone call or text message. All it takes is a tiny electronic blip or hum and we’re hooked.

Only last week The Washington Post reported studies about the many couples that are straining to maintain their love for each other while struggling with the allure of their androids and iPhones. This is not fake news, either. Researchers at Baylor University surveyed over 140 people and found that “almost half had been ‘phubbed’ by their partners, that is snubbed in favor of checking social media, news or texts on their iPhones.”

The managing editor of The Week Magazine, Theunis Bates, confesses to being caught up in the seductions of the electronic media and says he has been both a phubber and phubbee so he knows first hand the stresses involved.

Even should a phone not be in use, psychologists claim its presence alone in the middle of the table in the restaurant may cause interpersonal problems. Studies reveal that “simply leaving the phone out while dining . . . can interfere with your connection to your dining partner – perhaps because their eyes keep flicking toward the device eager for new alerts, suggesting that a piece of technology is more interesting than you are.”

Soon a kind of pavlovian response develops for compulsive iPhone users. Just by tapping a screen they are immediately rewarded with an “always updating streams of photos from family and friends, and tweets from the president.” Information varies widely and may include reports of the latest sexual abuse allegations being leveled at high-end capitalists, movie stars, clergyman and congressman. For the less discriminating phubbers there’s always a Trumpian rant or an endearing image of a friend’s new cat.

There’s mounting evidence that the rewards that this constant stream of data affords us are similar to the rush recreational drugs provide. Our electronic devices can turn us into addicts. As of 2015 there were an estimated two billion smartphone users with the number expected to rise by twelve percent in the next year.

Statistics are sobering. The average smartphone user checks in about eighty times a day either on Facebook, instagram feed or web links. I did however consult Google (I was alone when I did) to find out how many cell phone users there are worldwide. I want to emphasize here that it was my initiative to make the contact and only in the service of fact-finding. I want the record clear that I’m not addicted. I enjoy constitutional immunity.


St. Paul once said that we discover our strengths through weakness. I am a total electronic klutz, hopelessly inept with any electronic device. When trying to figure which icon to tap to retrieve a call or get weather, I behave like the centipede that gets flummoxed trying to decide which leg to put down first. I am not at all seduced by the lure of electronic beeps and buzzes. Actually I’ll frequently leave my iPhone at home because I find it intrusive and get irritated when I start messing with it. Being an electronic klutz has delivered me from the hand of the marketers and the snare of the phubber. The downside is that I’m often clueless as to what’s going on in the world that day. Hey, as I see it, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Most of it is demoralizing, anyway.

As with other addictive behaviors, confessional stories of personal struggles with phubbing are beginning to emerge, ironically, many on social media. Heather Wilhelm from the National Review writes to alert us as to what is happening: “Who among us hasn’t looked up at least once, smartphone in hand, slightly dazed, only to discover that precious bundles of minutes and hours have somehow slithered by, lost to all eternity, usually in exchange for no discernable enlightenment at all.”

In a more sober reflection I think that phubbing today does have an ominous side. It’s as if we in the post-modern era were like ten year olds who found a shiny nickel-plated revolver in the attic. We’re enthralled with its glittering properties, but have no idea how destructive it can be to ourselves or to those around us.

Phubbing may compromise our ability to be attentive, either to our environment or to each other. We’d literally become scatterbrained.

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


In a Sightless World by George Merrill

  • I have an inner light. So do you. You’ll notice it mostly when everything else darkens.

I don’t recall exactly what age I was, but there was a period as a child when I was tucked into bed before I felt ready to go. I entertained myself by closing my eyes and pressing on my eyelids.

I’d place finger pressure on my closed lids. One or two cheerio-shaped images appeared and they orbited through this interior universe. They changed colors the way the Northern Lights paint illuminated colors across the blackness of night. The colors went softly to magenta. Then they streaked yellow and finally to muddy brown – the way streams look after rainfalls. Surprisingly, the cheerio-shaped images were colored the same light tan as they look in a cereal bowl at breakfast. The background colors remained soft pastel as they slowly morphed from one color to another. This visual display that entertained me long enough so that after several minutes I was ready to sleep.

I was feeling festive the other day and found myself counting my blessings. It’s seasonally appropriate. I was surprised and pleased that I came up with as many blessings as I did. I’ll mention two that are for most of us so ordinary as not to worth mentioning. I can see and I can hear. And seeing is a joy.

The mid-Atlantic fall season reminds me of the soft pastel colors of my childhood’s bedtime adventure. In Vermont, where we go to visit children, fall colors seem almost garish, deeply saturated, stunning in their own way, but different from the Shore. It’s the difference between brilliant oil paintings and softer pastels I’ve seen, each relishing color, but rendered in different moods.

I read a moving essay by the acclaimed poet and Vermont essayist, Edward Hoagland. He, at eighty, lost his sight and writes about what it’s been like for him learning to live in a sightless world. He is an author of books that he can no longer read. There’s cruelty in being deprived of the functional organs of our creativity; Beethoven, who for deafness, never heard his great symphony performed and had to be turned around to receive the applause of an adoring audience that he could not hear.

Unlike my childhood adventure in which I chose to invite my inner lights to glow, Hoagland had no choice. I could always return to see the day. Hoagland cannot.

“Blindness is enveloping,” Hoagland writes. “It’s beyond belief to step outside and see so little, just a milky haze.”

I’ve spent large portion of my life reveling in the joys of sight. I’ve been enthralled by the marvelous textures shadow and highlight creates and the panoply of colors in changing landscapes. I’ve been an avid photographer since nineteen forty-seven. I’ve been writing for over twenty years and been practicing both arts with my eyes. Hoagland’s story disturbs me. With so great a loss, how does he cope, I wonder? How would I cope? I want to know where that well is from which he draws his strength? He still engages in his life with curiosity and wonder while continuing, without self-pity, to come to terms with a sightless world.

There’s a line is his essay that might suggest what that is: “Like Plato’s cave, your brain consists of memories flickering on the wall. The phenomenologies of sight [for Hoagland] are now memories . . . you can’t size up a new visage, yet the grottoes in your head have more to plumb, if your sight was lost midlife or later. You can go caving.”

Like the ancient caves of Lascaux, the walls of our memories are inscribed with the story of our lives. Now settled in the cave’s shadows, Hoagland sees his own stories written on the walls. He can revisit them. He goes caving.

I understand this to mean that while mourning the loss of seeing new vistas, he returns to the old ones and finds in them mystery and meaning.

The events of our lives once lived and inscribed on the walls of our soul’s memory, when reviewed in the here and now, often reveal so much of what we’d overlooked. Memories like that sparkle like diamonds when held up to an inner light. Turned slowly and deliberately they reveal many more facets than we ever thought were there when we first took hold of them. They become, as jewelers say about the finest diamonds: “of the first water.”

We possess an inner light. For some it’s a spark. It’s waiting to be kindled. For others it’s more like a flickering flame that appears in their eyes, the way I’ve heard compassionate and loving people described. Hoagland, I believe, through his poems and essays, illuminated the natural world in ways that helped us to see more deeply into a world he is no more privileged to see.

As I conclude this essay the sun is near setting and the late afternoon light illuminates the oaks in soft orange colors reminiscent of Dutch painters.

I wonder what new sights Hoagland is seeing with his inner light. His inner light will illuminate with new light, the familiar scenes of his life.

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.








Dropping The Bat by George Merrill

I killed a bat, once. I never felt right about it. It was wrong, so unnecessary, so driven. I discovered for myself how quickly fear incites violence.

Bats are mammals, warm blooded and hairy like dogs and cats. Their wings, fashioned of thin-skinned membrane are frequently translucent. Their skeletons are shaped remarkably like humans, except that their knees bend the wrong way, like herons. Bats see, but find their way about more effectively by emitting and receiving sound waves, not unlike sonar. Like musicians and whales, bats negotiate their world by sound. But unlike musicians and whales, bats are irrationally feared.

“Liminal,” Professor Gary McCracken at the University of Tennessee, suggests of these little creatures, attempting to explain why bats give so many of us the willies: “They do not fit into people’s view of the normal scheme of things. They tend to be in between.” The human mind remains uneasy with ambiguity.
Not everyone finds bats creepy. The Chinese saw bats as symbols of good luck and bat images regularly appear in their tapestries and rugs. The Navajo Indians venerated bats as mentors during the long night hours, associating bats with their deity, the ‘Talking God.’ However, enjoying status hasn’t necessarily been an enviable estate for some bats. The Chamorro peoples of Guam, while honoring bats at special ceremonies, express gratitude for their contribution to Chamorro culture by eating them. Bats, as a result, have grown scarce in the Northern Marianas; the Chamorro’s have taken to importing bats. Being without honor in ones own land can sometimes be a blessing.

I once saw a moving picture of a bat, a Lyle’s flying fox, one of the larger bats. The photographer had taken the picture as the bat flew past a strong light, which lighted the creature the way sunlight illuminates leaves. The light set the bat’s torso in sharp relief with stunning clarity. I could see that the bat looked just like a human being, head high, arms reaching out sideways, legs extended backwards. The entire body looked woven together by the translucent wing membrane surrounding its body, which from the light behind it, shone like a penumbra, a glowing halo. The bat looked like Jesus on the cross, ascending bodily to heaven, and going to glory.

One November evening my wife, Jo, and I were sitting reading in the living room. A bat swooped over our heads; making two more passes before it went out into the hallway and out of sight. In about five minutes it returned, making a second sweep, as if he’d forgotten something, and then was gone.

The thought of his return frightened me. I had resolved earlier, that should the bat reappear again in the house, I’d swat him with the squash racket. With a twist of the wrist, I couldn’t miss.

I went to the closet, took a racket and waited for the bat to appear again from the hallway. By then my heart was pounding; the racket shook slightly in my hand. I couldn’t help myself now; I was committed. I had a passing sense that I was possessed with fear, and behaving like a madman.

The bat soon returned to the living room. I was waiting, racket in hand. A second bat appeared. They flew opposite courses around the living room. Ducking and feinting as if the bats were after me, I swung wildly, but hit nothing. I disturbed the tranquil air.

I stopped for a moment and steeled myself against an impulse to run, long enough to imagine the bats as squash balls; I turned my fear into sport. And as one bat began passing slightly over my head, I aimed deliberately and swung the racket firmly, snapping my wrist at the same time. The racket struck the bat full bore with a sickening spongy ‘whump.’ The bat flew against the wall, and with tiny high-pitched squeaks fell to the floor on its back. The bat twitched, its chest heaved and one outstretched wing lay motionless.

I felt triumphant at first. I watched the bat on the floor. His eyes were large, open as though he were surprised, and wondering. He had a pug face covered with soft brown hair; the bat looked like a miniature pup. One wing was broken asunder, the other drawn next to him as if he had tried vainly to protect himself from injury; hearing the sound of the racket approaching at terrible speed, he could do nothing to avoid it. I was sure for a moment that he was looking at me, and asking me, “Why?” The tiny chest rose and fell for a minute or so and suddenly ceased moving. His world his ended with a ‘whump.”

My wife, Jo was standing next to me. She had suggested earlier that we open a couple of windows and following the drafts the bats would leave on their own accord. Of course she was right but by then I was possessed. For many men, violence arrives too quickly on the heels of fear. Jo looked at me the way women often look at the men they love when their men do things they don’t understand, things which men feel compelled to do–driven kind of things–and her eyes looked moist, gentle and terribly sad.

I felt a faint wave of nausea; I wanted to run and to hide, to avert Jo’s eyes and never see the bat again but as I turned my head, near the tip of the bat’s broken wing bone, I saw four tiny fingers and a thumb. The bat possessed hands, one of which lay open, as if he were waiting for me to reach out and take hold of it.

Jo walked across the room to open windows.

I felt hollow, empty.

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


In Praise of Oysters by George Merrill

Oysters at Thanksgiving are a tradition on the Shore.

However, before I lived on the Shore it was in1960 that I first ate oysters. It was in New Orleans at Galatoir’s restaurant. I had them on the half shell and then ordered Oysters Rockefeller. I was hooked for life.

Every New Years Day since I prepare Oysters Rockefeller for family and friends. Even those who normally think of oysters as ‘yucky’ will allow that as a Rockefeller, an oyster not only becomes a class act, but an epicurean delight. I believe it’s the bacon and Spice Pariesienne that’s used which lends this dish its unique taste. Who doesn’t like bacon? In any case, preparing them is a ritual act like performing a liturgical rite. Presenting the oysters ceremoniously to guests earns the chef deep reverence. Fresh oysters, dressed with select ingredients and steaming in the rock salt beds on which they have been baked, there’s nothing quite like Oysters Rockefeller.

For me, oysters have been a family affair. The paternal side of my family had been involved in New York and Staten Island’s prolific oyster trade for over 250 years. An oyster 200,000,000 years old would look about the same as those we see today in the Chesapeake Bay or like the one’s my great-grandfather harvested in Raritan Bay. There aren’t many creatures about which we can say that, although the horseshoe crab is a close contender.

Oysters’ ability to survive and not change greatly over time is daunting considering the assaults they’ve suffered from man and beast alike, pollution and starfish. They work at their survival by maintaining a low profile, staying stuck-in-the-mud, having a thick shell and a hard edge. They also have some exotic habits.

If there is a preponderance of females among oysters, some females may simply become males in order to level the playing field – or vice versa. Necessity, the mother of invention, illustrates in this case how mothers can become fathers as required. Actually this same phenomenon frequents our own day as divorce becomes more common and mom winds up being both mother and father. For oysters, however, it’s an issue of DNA and not dereliction of duty that initiates the transformation.

Oysters are comfortable in a transgender world although I imagine courting could be challenging. An amorous oyster making his advances may not get what he bargained for. She might switch leaving him with some soul searching about same sex relationships.

To keep their enemies away, oysters house themselves in the most disreputable looking shells: misshapen, gnarled, uneven and rough to touch. Their shells can inflict a nasty cut. They’re covered with muck. I’ve seen resident barnacles and little red worms burrowing here and there on their shells – enough to put you off. The oyster’s sleight of hand is to appear ugly, but only to the uninitiated. Starfish have been onto them for ages. They’re more interested in an oyster’s inner life. They see beyond appearances.

The ramshackle exterior belies the oyster’s smooth interior living space. Within, the oyster inhabits a miniature palace, a salon, and elegantly glazed and satin smooth. The pearl-like patina of its walls is accented with occasional splashes of blue. The interior forms a seamless sanctuary where the oyster rests safely ensconced as cozily as though it were royalty reclining between pillows of silk.

Oysters are unique in their ability to inspire both revulsion and admiration. Like Quasimodo in the Hunch back of Notre Dame, their malformed bodies fascinate and endear many to them. In the same way, I find oyster shells beautiful. Native Americans used the shells – sans oyster meat – as currency. Making change may have created problems or sales were simply rounded off to the closest shell.

I live on a creek. In a sad annual ritual, in late winter, a waterman walks the shoreline along the low water mark. It’s an odd sight. He walks slowly in search of oysters that tongers may have missed. He tows a small dinghy behind him and when I see him he seems a little like a man walking a dog. He may stop, talk on his cell phone for a few minutes and continue his search. Finding an oyster he picks it up by hand throws it in the dingy and moves on. It’s sad because I take this to mean that oyster populations are diminishing in the Bay. They were once so abundant in New York Harbor during the era of early Dutch settlers, that one resident wrote how oysters were so prolific one could about walk across them on the waters between Governors Island and lower Manhattan,

My admiration for oysters goes far beyond my stomach or my eyes. It’s about holding in my hand the descendant of a prehistoric creature whose family inhabited the earth as life itself was just beginning to sort itself out. They were there shortly after the dawn of being. If oysters had eyes to see and tongues to speak they could tell us about how this marvel we call creation began its long trek. They would be witnesses to how life struggled from the sea to survive on land, to take wings and fly, to develop legs to walk, thumbs to hold, and minds to remember the past and to imagine a future.

If oysters only talked, imagine the stories they could tell us.

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.