Counter-Culture Bowl and Thoughts on Alabama by Al Sikes

I thoroughly enjoyed the Counter-Culture Bowl last Saturday! Army won by a point.

My Dad and I watched the Army-Navy game together for years. As I recall, during a few of those years, it was the only game in its time slot. Dad had been in the Army. He had been conscripted and undoubtedly found some of the West Point graduates he served under overbearing but he passionately rooted for the cadets.

While the production quality of the game is much more advanced, many of its characteristics are just as Dad and I experienced. There was no hot-dogging then or now—sportsmanship was the honorable way. There was not the incessant chatter about whether some player will, as they say, “play on Sunday.” These young men will be defending their nation each Sunday.

It is hard not to notice the absence of player identity on their jerseys. They are playing for the team. And the service academy gridirons and jerseys are not converted into display spaces for sports brands.

Conference compensation (largely spent on sports facilities) and distribution monopolies, purchased by television networks, have robbed amateur sports of integrity. Schools jockey for league slots based on revenue potential. Geography used to define the Conferences. No more.

Maryland moved to the Midwest league (Big Ten) and my earlier home state team, Missouri, moved from its Midwest moorings to join the Southeastern Conference.

The distribution monopoly (availability on one network only) has resulted in advertising overload. The school tribe must watch the assigned channel and sit through advertising timeouts which interrupt the rhythm of the game.

Dana Jennings, a New York Times reporter, wrote an article headlined: “Sacked by the Media Blitz.” He spent an afternoon watching an NFL game or mainly the advertisements. He came up with a new acronym: ACS (Ad Concussion Syndrome.) He reported that there were well over one hundred ads “spliced into each game.”

Jennings’s bottom line in sport’s event advertising: “male insecurity.” He noted the ad narratives use cars, trucks, beer, erectile dysfunction products, and the like as objects that will help men overcome their insecurity. If they would like to reclaim their insecurity they might check out #MeTo.

Sports provide our cultures most frequent metaphors. We often talk about our life in baseball terms: strike out, singles, home runs, and the like. My assessment is that the fusion of sports with greed has put us behind the eight ball.

Is There a Character Vote

Is there a character vote? Yes, with thanks to Alabamans who just gave us and particularly politicians a vivid reminder.

We could use some character in governing. It is said that most problems elected officials encounter cannot be predicted, making the character dimension, as we assess candidates, especially important. It will not be clear for some time whether incumbent politicians understand the character dimension as something beyond keeping your hands to yourself.

My test of character is, in part, what those with a vote or veto do when reality crowds in on their predispositions. Two examples.

After the Sandy Hook school shooting the lines and arguments regarding gun control hardly changed. High capacity magazines, for example, were said to be protected by the constitution. When children and their teachers are slaughtered by a single shooter using a high capacity magazine, falling back on a badly outdated understanding of the Second Amendment is characterless.

More contemporarily the Party of fiscal discipline seems unconcerned with adding $1 trillion plus to the national debt over the next ten years. Its leadership argues that dynamic scoring, by the Joint Committee on Taxation, of its tax bill does not fully capture the projected growth spurt.

My space and your time do not permit detailing Arthur Laffer’s curve, but to my Republican friends I would just note that Laffer is not Moses.

Reading the papers after the victory in Alabama by Doug Jones reflect many opinions on its meaning. Idealistically, and probably naively, I hope that it might awaken the character dimension in more so-called leaders. America needs real leadership!

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Out and About (Sort of): Tribal Behavior Beckons Healthier Conditions by Howard Freedlander

A few months ago, a friend recommended I read Tribe, a 136-page book written by Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, among other works. This friend, Richard Marks, suggested that Tribe might explain the need for shared sacrifice as our country and community grapple with the treatment of returning war veterans.

As its underlying premise, the book makes the case that our American society lacks cohesiveness. It opines that the accumulation of wealth and material possessions promote a sense of individualism, a selfishness that prevents us from understanding the meaning of a shared mission and genuine concern for others.

Judgements such as Junger ‘s prompt caution and a wariness of over-generalization. Tribes come in all forms, be they families, religious and fraternal groups, sports teams, paramilitary and military units, emergency medical and response teams and close-knit communities, such as the Amish. Often when a professional football player talks, he or she quickly refers to teammates and the importance of a communal spirit that drives people to seek excellence and achieve victory.

Tribal organizations call for cohesiveness, mission focus, concern and caring for others, achievement by all participants—and an overriding one-for-all attitude.
Military units that have fought and endured hardship and death are tribal in the best sense; they operative effectively only if they pull for, and protect each other while striving for the subjugation of the enemy, sometimes requiring the ruthless dismissal of weak and unproductive members.

Tribal groups exclude others, maybe rightfully so, but also perhaps detrimentally so by failing to allow people unfamiliar with the culture of, say, military combat units to understand and empathize. Criticism of those not in the tribe only perpetuates isolation.

On the other hand, families and communities must treat returning veterans (substitute cancer victims or those struck by mental or physical trauma) with respect, support, and compassion. Jobs are one type of outreach. Listening is another.

Junger’s main point is just that: returning war veterans require more than gratitude (though that’s important too), but sincere recognition of them as people who seek to reenter the civilian world and want to be regarded as human beings with strengths and talents. They are not to be pitied and perceived as victims.

Bemoaning the lack of accountability on the part of Wall Street executives whose actions contributed to the Great Recession in 2008-9 and the condemnation of

Bowe Bergdahl for deserting his military unit in Afghanistan and placing others in mortal danger as they searched for him, Junger wrote: “Bergdahl put a large number of people at risk and may have caused the deaths of up to six soldiers. But in purely objective terms, he caused his country far less harm than the financial collapse of 2008, when bankers gambled trillions of dollars of taxpayer money on blatantly fraudulent mortgages. These crimes were committed while hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting and dying overseas. Almost 9 million people lost their jobs during the financial crisis, 5 million families lost their money, and the unemployment rate doubled to around 10 percent.”

Junger’s point is a valid one. Tribal instincts in the financial industry may have centered on greed—without any legal consequence. Bergdahl violated the tenets of military cohesion by abandoning his unit, consequently placing soldiers at risk and possibly death. Bergdahl was court-martialed, as he should have been. Walls Street executives were not. Unjust resolution in Junger’s opinion.

I’m not prepared to promote the notion that a culture of selfishness and brazen behavior permeates the financial industry. Nor did Junger go that far, at least not explicitly. An argument for a culture of compassion, morality, and fairness can be made, however.

Junger arrives at a conclusion that makes sense. “Acing in a tribal way simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community—be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country. Obviously, you don’t need to be a Navy SEAL in order to do that.”

Junger’s Tribe promotes human decency, moral behavior, a sense of solidarity and shared sacrifice. His thesis resonates in a society he portrays as disjointed and individualistic.

We can do more for our returning veterans. We can do more for our neighbors. We can escape our self-imposed enclaves, at least temporarily, to support those in need.

Tribes are expandable.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

 

The 1st District: Introducing Candidate Michael Pullen

According to Easton’s Michael Pullen, a powerful political transformation took place for him over the last few years which has turned this long-tenured public servant into a congressional candidate.

That’s the time it took for the former Talbot County Attorney to witness a time when the fundamental values he grew up with, and with which he conducted his professional life, seemed radically at odds with what can now be described as the Trump era.

In the Spy’s second installment of introducing the current candidates running for the 2018 Congressional seat for Maryland’s First District, Pullen outlines in detail the journey that led him to declare his candidacy and how his experience in the public arena has best prepared him to really “represent” the voters of the Eastern Shore.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information about Pullen for the US Congress please go here

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.

 

The Art of the Merge with ShoreRivers Jeff Horstman

While it could be said that the proverbial writing was on the wall for some time, the Sassafras, Chester River and Mid-Shore Riverkeepers, and their affiliated organizations, were getting a pretty clear message over the last three years from their major institutional funders that these three, very similar enterprises must consider consolidation for the best possible mission delivery.

As a result of this welcomed nudge, representatives of each group began to meet eighteen months ago to discuss the logistics of this somewhat complicated merging of functions and governance. But inevitably the most exciting part was when these organizations could start to see the raw power that could be achieved by the change. Not only regarding protecting their beloved river sheds but also have a far greater presence in Annapolis and the halls of Congress to pursue their advocacy work.

It fell on Jeff Horstman, the current director of the Mid-Shore Riverkeeper Conservancy, to manage the process which ultimately led to the creation of ShoreRivers.  And he will become its executive director at the beginning of the new year.

The Spy felt it was a good time to sit down with Jeff and talk about how the process, as well as the delicacy and sensitivity needed as these three very different cultures with very similar goals, become a new nucleus.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information about the new ShoreRivers please go here

Trigger Warning: Christmas Should Be Remembered by Al Sikes

Trigger Warning: This column is about Christmas, not Holidays. If you are likely to be offended by Merry Christmas, read no further.

To those Trumpians who sense I am going to embrace his pugilistic insistence on Merry Christmas, you will be likewise offended. Trump’s personal behavior is antithetical to his stated belief.

Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870. Calendar dates become Federal Holidays to recognize iconic figures (Presidents), or sacrifice (veterans), or national independence, or a transcendent figure. A nation’s ultimate health and continuity turns on not just what is recognized as important, but also an understanding of its meaning. Too often today polls and interviews show that many have little or no understanding of why they get a day off.

Importantly, we celebrate Christmas spirit. What is its source? Capitalism? Advertising? Or the word Holiday, which for most means a day off from work. Symbols and marketing aside, failure to understand Christmas diminishes us.

It is argued by some that greeting a person with Merry Christmas risks offending non-believers Yet, only a thoughtless person is not offended daily by cultural and related commercial excess. When a nation becomes unmoored from its history, yes even myths, it’s citizens become victims of unrestraint. Freedom becomes more theoretical than real as exploiting appetites replace serving needs.

Most who do not believe in the biblical Christ nonetheless acknowledge and welcome his message of love and sacrifice for his principles. Plus, our nation enjoys the inspirations that resulted in the American Red Cross, Young Men’s Christian Association, Habitat For Humanity, The Salvation Army, and tens of thousands of organizations and churches that educate and care for humanity.

So, please forgive me if I offend you. Forgiveness is central to Christmas, and I don’t want any of us to forget why it is celebrated.

Have a Merry Christmas!

Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. 

Mid-Shore Arts: Artist Emily Lombardo Has a Three Year Chat with Goya at the AAM

One of the first things that must be said in prefacing our Spy interview with artist Emily Lombardo is that her current exhibition, The Caprichos: Goya and Lombardo at the Academy Art Museum, is not complicated for the audience to comprehend.

Two artists, separated by some 300 years, offer similar and sobering images of their contemporary society’s failures. For Francisco Goya, his eighty etchings, which make up the original work known as Los Caprichos, reflected the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition and the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic Church among many other social illnesses of his time.

For Emily Lombardo, who, as a young art student in Boston would spend her afternoons at the Museum of Fine Art observing Goya’s work, Los Caprichos offered her an entirely new gateway to express her moral outrage at today’s injustices as well as, you guessed it, the moral bankruptcy of Catholic Church and its more recent sins related child sex abuse.

The challenge for the audience is to go beyond these often dark images and see how these two worlds both contrast and connect with each other in this remarkable exhibition organized by the AAM’s curator Anke Van Wagenberg.

The Spy caught up with Emily before the opening of The Caprichos: Goya and Lombardo to talk about this extraordinary undertaking (it took both artists three years to complete their work) and some suggestions for visitors and they observe these two worlds which fill the Museum’s two primary gallery spaces for the next few months.

This video is approximately four minutes in length. For more information on The Caprichos: Goya and Lombardo please go here

 

Out and About (Sort of): No Ordinary Wall, No Ordinary Support by Howard Freedlander

How does the arrival on May 31, 2018, of a three-fifths replica of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall relate to a program to provide basic, urgent support to Mid-Shore veterans?

While the Mid Shore Recovering Veterans Group (MSRVG) provides funds for such things as dental treatment, food, disability access, clothing, rent, wheelchair repair, auto maintenance, license tags, heating oil and residential plumbing, a group of Vietnam veterans is working to welcome the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, from May 31 to June 6.

Both groups have a similar mission; to care for, and about veterans. That would seem an obvious conclusion when viewing the good deeds of MSRVG, founded in 2011 and led by Royce Ball of Easton. It has helped 122 veterans in Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties. The Vietnam Wall replica, containing the names of 58,215 men and women killed during the war, also will serve the veterans of that conflict by enabling them not only to honor the memories of buddies, but to feel the appreciation of the communities that often treated returning Vietnam veterans poorly and abusively roughly 50 years ago.

Fighting in a controversial and unpopular war, soldiers came home to an unwelcoming country. They deserved better. They did not develop ill-advised policies and poorly conceived strategies. They simply served. Just as citizens from every part of our nation have done since the Revolutionary War.

The Mid Shore now can say thanks to our veterans. It will mean much.

Stories abound of Vietnam veterans being called “baby killers,” even spat upon. I’ve heard tales of veterans flying into West Coast airports and hurrying to a restroom to change from their uniforms into civilian clothes. What a shame, what a blemish on our country for its outrageous behavior toward folks who supposedly erred by doing one thing wrong—serving their country!

The MSRVG warrants due recognition. Distributions totaled $21,687.84, not including scholarships, in 2016. Donations amounted t0 $33,292.50 in 2016, marked by significant contributions from the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Queenstown American Legion Post 296, the Kent Island American Legion Post 278 and the Easton Rotary Club.

Veterans served by MSRVG represent the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Air National Guard, Army National Guard, Merchant Marine and the Army Air Corps (World War II). Military service was performed in Vietnam, Korea, the Middle East, Europe, Kosovo, Alaska, Guantanamo Bay and the Philippines.

Through Royce Ball, MSRVG has representation on the Mental Health Association of the Eastern Shore and the Homeless Roundtable, managed by the Mid Shore Behavioral Health.

When the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall comes to Easton at VFW Post 518 (355 Glebe Road), one Vietnam veteran will be particularly pleased. Kenley Timms, whom I’ve known for a number of years, came up with the idea to bring the three-fifths replica to Easton after seeing it in Timonium in Baltimore County at a commemoration of the Vietnam War sponsored by Maryland Public Television. Timms has worked hard and long over the years to increase the visibility of the Vietnam War in Talbot County and promote recognition of the service performed by county residents in Southeast Asia.

For seven days, 24 hours a day, the traveling wall will be open to the public. I suspect it will draw thousands and thousands of people who will want to find names of family members and friends and pay homage to them. I think that people will find this starkly poignant wall, with nearly 60,000 names, a powerful reminder of a war that ripped apart our nation and generated fierce protests.

And the wall will provide a place for healing. That will be its crucial purpose.

The Mid Shore Recovering Veterans Group helps those with serious needs live comfortably. Our veterans are not forgotten. The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall will help promote understanding of a divisive war and place undivided attention on soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guard members for their service.

A community is stronger when it pulls together to help those in need, to support its veterans, to honor the sacrifice and to understand invisible, painful wounds that last a lifetime.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

Exit Interview: Nancy Andrew and the Future of Habitat for Humanity – Choptank

Almost since the Spy began publishing in 2009, we have welcomed the opportunity to talk to long-tenured nonprofit leaders in anticipation of their planned departure of the organizations they serve.  While it’s unfortunate that human resources offices nowadays have somewhat co-opted the phrase “exit interview,”  it does describes the interest and usefulness in capturing these informed leaders reflections on the causes they serve and their analysis of the challenges and opportunity to come.

And that is the case with the Spy’s latest interview with Nancy Andrew after her eight years with Habitat for Humanity – Choptank. Nancy has decided to leave the organization as its executive director at the end of January after eight years at the helm.

And while Nancy acknowledges that her decision to leave Habitat matches her time spent leading Talbot Mentors, another highly respected Talbot County nonprofit, her reflections in her interview with the Spy indicate to her that nonprofit organizations, like any business, go through cycles of development which is not related to periods of time.  Nancy also shares her thoughts on how things have changed but also how the organization’s core business and mission has not during that time.

This video is approximately five minutes in length. For more information about Habitat for Humanity – Choptank please go here.

 

 

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.