Goose Tales by George Merrill

Geese, like many boaters and tourists who show up on the Shore, are seasonal visitors. The arrival of geese in the fall is like the invasion of college kids on Maryland beaches during spring break; they’re everywhere. Geese gather in droves in the creeks, golf courses, and weekenders’ lawns, huddling feather to feather. They stay for the winters and then leave.

Whether arriving, taking off, or just floating around, geese make an extraordinary ruckus. One night in the fall some years ago, while anchored on the Wye River near Shaw Bay, a huge colony of geese settled in the water near us. I was unable to hear what my wife was saying across the cockpit for the din that the geese were making. Geese generate a thunderous volume because they all talk at once the way anxious people do. Why so much to say I have no idea, unless, perhaps, as frequent fliers, they’re relieved to be settled in and enjoy telling each other stories of where they’ve been, the ups and downs of their flight south and who they’d bumped into along the way. I heard a lot of stories that night, and although I couldn’t understand a word – a honk, more accurately – I didn’t sleep a wink for the din.

Once, in late spring, I woke in the middle of the night to the honking of a solitary goose in the creek in front of my house. I’m used to sounds that gaggles of geese make. It’s odd hearing only one. I felt melancholy listening to the goose. I couldn’t get back to sleep, but not because of the noise–the honking wasn’t intrusive– but for the suggestion of what this plaintive voice might portend.

In spring, I’m expecting nature’s new arrivals. This goose must have been around the Bay since the fall, anyway. I doubt it was a recent arrival. To hear the honking of only one goose when I know that he or she, only a month ago, was surrounded by the convivial chatter of friends and relatives, inclines me to think the worst: perhaps its spouse died or for health reasons the goose wasn’t up to making the long trip north. For this goose, spring was not a beginning, but an end.

There are gains and losses in the seasons of life. I think of the retirees who come to the Shore to live out their days in the gentle ambience of tidewater country. In my community, most of the people are of riper years, most over fifty-five.   The days of contentment endure for a while but then there’s the inevitable time of illness and death. One survives to live out by themselves the dream they once shared together.

Not far from my home just off the Bozman-Neavitt Road, a couple I knew once named their home, Final Decision. The name was inscribed on a plaque attached to a covered well housing that stood by the road. The home is still there, the well housing too, but the name has disappeared.

Final Decision was a word play on the husband’s profession – he had been a judge – and that this was the last move the couple planned to make. In short, like many here, they came to live out their lives on the Shore. The husband died and the wife stayed on in the house.  After some years she became disabled with age and her family saw the necessity of moving her to a facility providing regular care. After she left, the sign began losing letters, falling off one by one, until, when I last saw the sign, the remaining letters read, ‘indecision.’  Life decisions we make are rarely final; they’re tentative. The final decision is made elsewhere.

I considered another possible scenario to account for the solitary bird’s presence. Indeed, like Henry David Thoreau, the goose may have been making a statement. He’d had it with the noise, the crowded skies, congestion on the creeks, geese everywhere flapping and fussing, and spending long hours in the air. Like Thoreau, the goose found his own Walden Pond, on the creek in front of my house.

For man and goose, alike, there are tradeoffs to be managed. While it’s comforting knowing someone’s nearby it’s also important to have time and space to be still and alone. To be assured of the comforts and safety that companionship and society provide, most species congregate together in one way or another. For our part, we build and inhabit homes around the tranquil coves we love, sail the open waters that beckon us, and drop our hooks in the silent creeks and rivers that promise us a night’s safe anchorage. But we also insist upon having conveniences nearby like shopping malls with big boxes We profane the very pristine nest we sought for refuge, the place where we sought gentle space, where we could engage in the discernment that solitude brings, and where that soft, downy texture of stillness can be heard, the stillness that cradles the soul like soft pillows sooth sleepy heads.

After a month or so I never saw the goose again. Who knows where he’d gone. But I like to think that he went on searching for that perfect time which includes discovering the uncommon place for which many of us longed and found a while we lived on the Shore.

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.

 

Keep Your Pants On by George Merrill

‘Keep your pants on’ we’re exhorted when we become frantic, impatient and agitated. We’re urged to be cool, stay easy with things. The phrase, in addition to being a metaphor, can now be understood literally. An epidemic has been identified among post-modern men; we see droopy drawers everywhere.

It’s shortly after Christmas and near New Year’s Eve. In those weeks, I’ve eaten more than my share and I Know it. When I overeat, it alarms me. Various parts of my body redistribute themselves. In a word, I add volume while changing shape.

There was a time when all that was required of me to see the tips of my shoes was to cast my glance downward. I can do that, but it’s not my shoes I see, anymore. The space between where my eyes are set and my shoes are planted, a terrain once occupied by a firm torso, has been replaced with a more viscous substance I can only call fat. What had once been concave, is now convex. In order to see my shoes, today, I must bend forward some. My pants that historically belted navel high, given my evolving body shape, must now be buckled well below the navel in order to remain up. In the body, matter is neither created nor destroyed, just increased and moved around.

What offends me about my body’s redistribution of its mass is that I must secure my pants with a belt well below my navel, leaving to my shame, an unsightly mass draping over the belt for which no amount of gerrymandering (or sucking up) is able to alter. My roll of fat is visible to all and my drawers appear perilously close to dropping.

I’ve recently had some workers doing carpentry around the house. These are fit young men, at the top of their game, with lean bodies as straight as ramrods. I notice, however, when any one of them has to bend over, it reveals the upper portion of his butt. This phenomenon is common enough to have earned a diagnostic designation: “builder’s butt.” This describes graphically what happens to a man when his pants sit too low at his hips. Bending over to hammer nails or working on a pipe under a sink, his trousers decidedly fail him. His pants reveal the upper regions of those lower ones that pants were once engineered to conceal.

The corpulent old men of my youth, my grandfather and my great uncle, had significant paunches. I remember distinctly my great uncle’s silver belt buckle sitting prominently across the widest circumference of his girth. I thought it was neat. I recall both men’s large middles fondly, as if this was the distinguishing mark of age and wisdom. I don’t recall seeing an offensive overhang, which is the objection I have to my own paunch. Theirs, as I recall, would make mine look like an anthill. I wonder just how were they were able to wear pants buckled high along the upper waist, leaving no trace of an overhang? I would add that neither of them wore suspenders.

It seems to me that straight lean bodies should allow the belt securing one’s pants to ride just about anywhere up or down the torso. But today, even with young bodies, men’s pants rest precariously below the hip. I have concluded this happens not by the physical vicissitudes of aging men, but by a calculated decision of fashion designers.

I realized this while at the voting booth in Easton. While waiting my turn, I was dreamily people-watching. My glance fell on a tall man around my age. He was thin, rangy and well built. What seemed odd was how low his trousers were riding on his hips. Obviously, this did not result from the inability of his torso to accommodate a belt-tightening just about anywhere he chose to secure it. I can only conclude that fashion designers are flooding the market with slacks tailored to make men appear as if their drawers are dropping.

I can’t imagine why. I see no aesthetic advantages to such a design nor even a hint of erotic allure -which dominates most all products of fashion – except maybe handkerchiefs. To say the least, a man with droopy drawers does not present as someone dignified, a desirable sex object, or as someone having any idea of how to meet the public. He is definitely not cool.

Answers to this strange phenomenon may be found in today’s psycho-social climate. The unstable climate seems to be driving all kinds of aberrations. Truth telling has become a lost art today and we’re hesitant to believe anything we hear or see. The transparency we once valued in our relationships to one another has grown opaque with the incessant allegations of “fake.”

Transparency and openness with one another was once considered a social necessity, even a virtue. I wonder whether, while men’s pants don’t reveal all, they reveal just enough to satisfy us that a man is trustworthy; his pants present him as the kind of guy discreet and tasteful enough not to let everything hang out, but sufficiently transparent to assure us he is not hiding anything.

A bit of a stretch perhaps but there you have it. Nothing else I can think of explains it.

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.

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A Hole In The Ground by George Merrill

If the New Years’ experience is nothing else, it’s our collective indulgence in nostalgia.

We all know that feeling of sweet aching, a yearning for some aspects of our past, however we interpreted them. The word nostalgia means coming home. And of course, ‘home’ begs the question: just where is home? Is home somewhere way back there that I’ve left behind, or is it located up ahead of me where I have not yet arrived? Is a homecoming a retreat? An advance? Or might it be just standing where I am and really know the place.

I suspect it’s all of the above. Home is wherever the heart is.

When I was a boy, I wrote a message on a piece of yellow lined paper and placed it in a can that once held tennis balls. I dug a hole in the ground and buried it in the hayfields behind our house. I cannot remember what I wrote although I remember the yellow lined paper. I wanted the finder to know something, but for the life of me I cannot recall what it was. I do recall feeling powerfully driven to leave a message hidden for someone one day to discover. I would describe the feeling as one of nostalgia and a fleeting sense of life’s hidden connections that emerge to surprise me. Creating my time capsule was inspired perhaps by stories I’d read about people finding bottles on beaches, set adrift by someone unknown far away. I’ve wondered whether it was my way of leaving a piece of me behind that would outlast my days, a primal yearning perhaps for immortality, a statement across time that bears witness to the fact that I had once been here.

I recently retrieved copies of old newspapers I saved from New Year’s Day, Y2K; specifically, the Washington Post and The Staten Island Advance. They represented the worlds of my past on the Island, and my present home in St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore. I saved them thinking the millennium was an epic event and it might be interesting years later to see what our concerns were when it first came.

It turned out it wasn’t how we would fare in the new millennium, but how our electronics would. The bogey man then was the fear of the Millennium Bug, a problem in the coding of computerized systems that was projected to create havoc in computers and computer networks around the world at the beginning of the year.

The evolution of our computerized systems has in fact created havoc, not coding issues as such, but the impact electronics have brought to every conceivable aspect of modern life. Few would consider leaving their homes today without taking their cell phones than they’d consider leaving the house without clothes.

I saw in that edition of the Post that I was not alone in my desire to put time capsules in the earth. One headline read: “A time capsule from the people of the year 2000 to those of the year 3000.” The national millennial time capsule in D.C. contained among other things, a piece of the Berlin Wall, a Hostess Twinkie, a WWII helmet and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.” How the contents for time capsules were chosen is not clear. The contents of some raise the question in my mind of just what were they thinking.

Take for example the Billings Montana Campfire Girls Adventure Group 33; they sealed a time capsule in l976 to be opened 2076 Tercentennial. That they included a Princess telephone, a digital watch seems understandable, but a box of bullets was odd. Was it something like squirrels who bury acorns to be retrieved when the going gets tough? Maybe the bullets have something to do with the girls being called “Adventure Group 33,” or do the bullets suggest the incipient stages of the #metoo movement.

In 1976, a time capsule was buried at the Los Angeles Bicentennial to be opened in 2076. The contents included one of Cher’s dresses, a pet rock, a skateboard and Laker Jerry West’s No. 44 basketball jersey.” Mostly Frippery in my opinion.

A Time Capsule commemorating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. was sealed in 1988 and slated to be opened in 2088. Here the contents seem appropriate; personal possessions of a great man, audio cassettes of the 80’s and recordings of the significant speeches of the civil rights era.

The Westinghouse time capsule sealed at the 1939 World’s Fare (I was there), was slated to be opened in 6939. Why so far into the future I can’t imagine. It contained no remarkable items or any whimsical material, but microfilm, news reels, fabrics and, presciently, seeds.
Since science is creating hybrids all the time, studying the characteristics of the original seeds might teach us how life mutates over time, perhaps like preserving the bones of a pre-historic man.

Most American time capsules from the 19th and 20th centuries contained a Bible, stamps, coins, newspapers and an American flag. Some offer predictions about how life will be when they are opened.

On the front page of The Washington Post’s millennial edition I read; “Yeltsin Resigns: Premier Putin Assumes Power Pending Election. He’s here to stay.

What became of my own time capsule that I sealed and placed in the ground in 1944? In 1945, the field was bull dozed for a housing development. No doubt my statement to the world was lost to development. As silly as it may sound, although I have no idea what I wanted to tell the world in my time capsule, I felt a twinge of nostalgia when I remembered placing it in the ground while I entertained the hope that one day it would be found and my words would become a part of someone else’s story.

That kind of moment is more than just a hole in the ground.

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.

Oysters Rockefeller by George Merrill

As the New Year arrives, I will have been on this planet eighty-five years. It’s a wonder to me as I think about it. This is a long time to spend in one place. Oh, I’ve moved around within its confines, but in the big picture I have to say my entire life has been lived on earth. Being an inveterate day-dreamer, my parents weren’t always convinced; they complained that I spent a lot of time elsewhere.

Robert Burns had it right. Auld lang syne are never forgot especially at anniversary times like holidays, birthdays, and of course, the end of the old year. Then the thought of old times surface.

Speaking of earth, I first moved to Maryland in 1973. I was thoroughly charmed by everything about the state: the tropical summer heat and humidity, the nettles in the bay as thick as barley soup, and the rolling hills in Baltimore and Harford counties. When I first come to the Eastern Shore, I arrived as John Smith did, on a sailboat. I sailed from Middle River to Fairlee Creek and spent the night there. The air was still, the water calm; it was a magical moment watching the sunset.

Maryland in size is around nine thousand square miles, medium in size compared to the other states. This is what I love about the state. I can go a hundred miles or so from just about anywhere in the state, and discover the grandeur of the rolling hills of Greenspring Valley, the grand old mansions along Maryland’s many rivers and the voluptuous tidal marshes of the Eastern Shore.

There were two reasons I had a romance going with Maryland long before I moved here. I was familiar and enchanted with Aubrey Bodine’s bay photographs, especially the skipjacks and watermen. When I was a boy, my grandmother told me tales of how great grandfather Merrill sailed down to the Chesapeake to purchase oyster seeds to plant in the oyster beds in Raritan Bay off Staten Island. Seeds indeed, I thought then. Do oysters grow like dandelions? Great grandfather Merrill harvested the oyster beds there until the early 1900’s when the beds were closed for fear of spreading typhus.

My family was deeply ensconced in New York’s legendary oyster trade, but I never tasted an oyster until the 1960’s when I was in New Orleans and ate at Galatoires. I had Oysters Rockefeller and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. After returning from New Orleans, that following New Year’s Day I went about making them. Ever since then I have prepared oysters at New Year’s. I use the recipe from The Joy of Cooking. I do it from scratch, shucking the oysters myself, melting the butter and adding spices.

The down side of aging is brought home to me around the oyster ritual. For over forty-one years I’ve been preparing this New Year’s oyster feast for select friends and family. Some have either died (not as a result of eating my oysters), moved away or grown infirm so they can’t travel any more. It’s the nature of rituals that they continue to go on while only the players change.

In the early years of the ritual, I discovered that an oyster does not yield its fruits willingly. I had no formal instruction in opening oysters. As with many hazardous tasks, patience is not only a virtue, but it can spare you a visit to the doctor.

One New Years Day, growing weary of shucking, I hurried to cut corners. Instead of cutting a corner, I cut my hand; I put the oyster knife through my palm. I bled so much that it looked like all the oysters were covered in cocktail sauce. It was my blood.

The small town of Joppa, on the Western Shore where I lived, had a resident physician whom I’d never met. I went to him He scolded me good naturedly for my carelessness and sewed me up. That’s when I learned a new way of dealing with a recalcitrant oyster. He suggested that if I had an ornery one, take plyers and twist the lip to break a piece from it. You can see where the opening lies and then insert the knife. It works, but for all the years I have been opening oysters, I’ve never learned to do it well. For the last several years during the Waterfowl Festival in Easton, I’ve watched a professional shucker open the shells with a nimble twist of the wrist in a way that the meat is extracted whole and never macerated – as I always manage to do it. I never quite got it.

I feel a primal affinity for the oyster. They cast a spell over me. To describe their exterior is like poetry– they have hard striated shells, like tile roofs, all covered with calcium ripples, like goose bumps. Sudden sharp edges arise here and there and can give the unwary a nasty cut. Like braille, running my fingers gently over the ruts and contours of the shells, conveys a message to me, a statement that’s thousands of years old. The oyster’s beauty is one of sharp contrasts; while roughhewn and rugged on the exterior, it’s interior is shaded with subtle swirls of pastel blue and finished in a smooth and unblemished surface as fine as silk. Their allure may be a genetic resonance in my DNA code since my ancestors settled on the Island in the late sixteen hundreds and fished the Island’s marshes and Raritan Bay well into the twentieth century. I think a way of life, if it’s not practiced anymore by descendants, is nevertheless etched into their sense of things.

Just why was it so late in my life that I discovered the oyster? It may be the way many of us were as kids. Then we thought anything fishy was gross, inedible. The oyster’s gelatinous meat may be delectable to the practiced gourmet, but for any kid or some serious meat and potatoes guy, at first glance oyster can seem super-yukky and slimy, far too suggestive of what issues from our nasal mucosa. Although I can’t remember, it seems reasonable that back then, for aversions like that, I wanted nothing to do with oysters until that life-changing day at Galatoires in New Orleans.

I suspect that’s why Jonathan Swift, the eighteenth-century satirist once put it this way: “He was a bold man that first ate the oyster.”

I’ll bet he never regretted it.

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.

They Serve Who Only Stand and Wait by George Merrill

Of the many sights and sounds that accompany the holidays, none warms my heart more the loyal soldiers of the salvation army. They are as much a part of the season as a Christmas tree.

In 1865 William Booth, a Methodist minister, preached his first sermon in front of the Blind Beggar, a pub in London’s seedy East End. He was an evangelical preacher who founded the Salvation Army as a mission to care for the needy. Interestingly, the organization is shaped by a military infrastructure, with officers directing their missions with troops called ‘salvationists’. Their mission is the practice of service to the needy, not the exercise of power.

I think of them as God’s grunts, the foot soldiers, bearing not the heat and burden of the day, but the freezing cold of wintertime. Growing up we’d take the ferry to Manhattan to shop at Christmas. It seemed I would see salvationists everywhere, but especially in front of retail stores. They would stand in the cold, ring a hand bell and say something I can’t recall . . . was it Merry Christmas? Then, next to the soldier, a small tripod stood with a chain supporting a kettle; in those days cast iron as I recall, the kind our colonial ancestors might cook in. Some people stopped, rummaging through purses and wallets and pulled out money to place in the kettle. The salvation army soldier seemed tireless, but always congenial and I’ve often wondered what it must be like to be one of those faithful souls. They are the real plodders of the spiritual world of good works. I wouldn’t say they do the dirty work, but perhaps perform the least glamorous and even thankless task of this army’s mission.

As a boy, I always felt sorry for them, not really understanding what they were about. I assumed they were poor and needy standing in the cold hoping for some small token of care from passing strangers. I hadn’t quite grasped that what they were doing was for others and not themselves.

On the city streets of Manhattan, I remember salvationists vividly. They would be standing by a fire burning in a small drum to keep warm. The wind really whips up along the city streets of New York. Since so many streets are long and straight, the wind accelerates rather than being impeded in places where the road are more winding.

It’s a tough job.

In those days, I’d see salvationists standing in front of Macy’s or Sachs Fifth Avenue. Shoppers laden with packages containing expensive and exotic gifts would be constantly coming and going. They would pass by the salvationist dutifully attending to their mission and few stopped. I understand from friends who have served in the military that waiting is something every soldier understands. ‘Hurry up and wait’ describes the military way of life.

All this came to mind last week when I was shopping at Walmart. A salvationist stood just by the exit. This person was not in any uniform the with exception of Santa’s signature hat, bright red with white trim. She wore glasses and was wrapped in a heavy wool sweater ringing the hand bell and wishing passersby’s a Merry Christmas. I was moved to give (in the interests of full disclosure I need to say I didn’t always give), but my impulse to give something to her then was powerful. I wondered why.

Maybe it was the contrasts. On the one hand, busy shoppers like me spending money freely and this faithful person symbolically standing there for no other reason than to witness and aid the needs of the poor and disenfranchised of our community.

Was I feeling guilty for having plenty? That may have been a part of it. When I was a teen, my mother took us up to the city to see The Nutcracker Suite. It was a few weeks before Christmas. It was windy and cold. We stood on the waiting line that went well outside the concert hall. I was cold. A man stood in front of the hall, shabbily dressed and playing the violin. It seemed strange to me that he should be there cold and looking so soulful while the rest of us would soon be inside and warm and eager to see the performance. I remember thinking that he too wished to be a part of that orchestra that would soon be performing inside. Was his lot such that he didn’t have the skill? Was he down on his luck? It bothered me. The image has remained fast in my mind for sixty-five years. It hovers there in the midair of my mind’s eye. I think now that was my first feeling sense of what the lot of the outsider must be like. I felt the loneliness, vicariously.

In my experience, the Salvation Army enjoys its greatest visibility during the Christmas season when it’s salvationists can be seen standing on city streets and rural communities like Easton as well. Need is not peculiar to just cities.

That day I did stop in front of Walmart and took money from my wallet and dropped it in the receptacle. The salvationist smiled wished me a Merry Christmas and I went off with my packages to get in the car. The car was still warm. It felt good.

As I drove away I had this thought: this lovely enterprise serving humanity was conceived by an evangelical preacher who once preached in front of a bar. Unfortunately, today we are aware of evangelicals mostly for their political loyalties, but not the charitable mission which many practice.

The last line of John Milton’s epic poem when writing about the loss of his sight concluded this way: “They do serve who only stand and wait.”

I think that describes our friends of the Salvation Army very well. The movement was founded, after all, by an evangelist who preached his first sermon in front of a pub called The Blind Beggar.

Merry Christmas.

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.

Peace On Earth by George Merrill

“Peace on earth and good will to all” is our holiday mantra. The holidays are upon us. So is the mantra. Whether peace and good will are upon us, well, that’s a whole different matter.

I have a book written in cooperation with the American Friends Service Committee. The committee promotes peace education worldwide. The book is no bigger than the spread of my hand, maybe an inch thick. Each page contains up to three brief commentaries on the subject of peace. I thumb through it periodically.

The book is remarkable in the sheer variety of the world’s great iconic figures commenting on the nobility of peace. The 582 contributors affirming peace include names like Gandhi, Einstein, Rachel Carson, Walt Whitman, George Patton, Jimmy Carter, Tolstoy, Dwight Eisenhower, Buddha, Ovid, Anne Frank and Matrin Luther King Jr.

The statements depict yearning, the hope the authors have rather than identifying any achievements in establishing peace.

The message is clear: worldwide, the human heart longs for peace. So why, after the ‘war to end all wars’ was there WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan to mention major conflicts, not including the hundreds of internecine conflicts within African nations and in the Middle East? Is there a darker side of this we are not seeing, or wish not to?

I think so.

All affirm the ideal, and one quote from Thomas Hardy suggests why it’s difficult to achieve. Hardy, writing at the turn of 20th century, comments about peace, but puts it in a different light, namely that there is actually something alluring about war. He writes, “My argument is that War makes rattling good history, but Peace is poor reading.” I think Hardy brings to the table a disturbing thought that few wish to own: there is pleasure in war. Mortal combat produces an adrenaline rush. Skirmishes with death are exciting. At a more benign level, the murder mystery is one of the hottest sellers, some filled with muted violence, others bloody. Video games sell like hot cakes and they are not games that promote our finer sensibilities. ‘Annihilate the enemy’ is the goal of these games. Kids are mesmerized by them. I know adults who play.

In graduate school, I studied psychotherapy. I had two friends that were Viet Nam vets, Reggie and Rock. Rock served as a marine, Reggie with the army, both in Viet Nam. We were all ordained clergy. Occasionally we’d gather for drinks and talk about our classes or anything on our minds.

One evening we discussed war. I had no military experience so I enjoyed some of the tales of military life that were delightfully zany. I learned the origins of the acronym, SNAFU and how just saying it lightened the drudgery of military life. Reggie was quick witted, a fun guy to be around. Reggie had seen considerable jungle combat in his three-year tour in the Army. He brought it up for the first time in one of our conversations.

One evening Reggie talked about the war. He said how few will tell you this, but there is an undeniable adrenaline rush in the midst of combat. What we don’t hear about the rush is how exhilarating it is and when the fighting is over, you miss the high. I remember him saying specifically, he knew no high that could compare with it and to this day he confessed that he missed it. Rock agreed. They knew what ‘highs’ were all about and war was a special one.

Perhaps it’s not so strange that we continually wage war over thousands of years even as we claim to abhor it; Everyone deplores the carnage, the suffering, the destruction of war. Yet war goes on and on and on. Is it that peace is boring, as Hardy suggests? Do we need drama, constant stimulation or even catastrophes to maintain our attention, to make us feel vital and alive? Where there is a spiritual vacuum, violence is energizing.

A closer look at today’s way of life is instructive? It’s frantic and overstimulating. Communication has become flagrantly sensational. Our leader’s foibles, predictably flamboyant and bombastic, are aired, televised or printed only moments after his tantrums issue. Most stations air “Breaking News,” not just news. To gain our attention there is a need to create urgency and an anticipatory excitement for what is about to come. I’ve also noticed that some news stations on TV begin with drum rolls just before the anchor speaks, not as if to announce news, but as if they were introducing a death-defying circus act. On one TV screen, we may have three things going on simultaneously: the show, the latest data crawling along base of the screen, and in the corner of the screen, the blinking of the station’s identification logo. TV multitasks all the time. It keeps us multitasking or, if it doesn’t, we think something’s gone wrong with the set.

We’re rarely at peace. We’re mostly multitasking, busy about many things.

A statement by Anne Frank sums up the book: “I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Anne Frank did not have the luxury of a thousand diversions. She was confined, with nothing to do but manage the inevitable stresses that come with being cramped in crowded quarters. What she developed was an inspiring inner life. By becoming aware of her thoughts and feelings, investigating the small circumference that constituted her entire life and writing her thoughts down, she transcended the physical limitations imposed on her. She found an inner space that was far more expansive than even the country in which fate had trapped her.

Through her suffering she discovered peace on earth and good will toward all.

Peace begins in the silent spaces of the heart; it’s an inspired vision of possibility.

Anne Frank was inspired by in inner vision. It was forged in her suffering. How she did it is not clear, but it offers hope for greater possibilities for a world vision.

She wrote: “If I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

I pray for that vision.

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

A Reflection on Servant Leaders by George Merrill

This month marks a significant anniversary in my life.

On December 17, 1960, I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

I have fond recollections. It was a grand occasion. The cathedral setting and the ceremony’s grandeur left me feeling as though I were being knighted, and instead of a sword laid upon my head while I knelt in fealty to a King, the Bishop of New York laid his hands upon my head in the way of the ancient rite that confers the order of priesthood. The rite was dignified, noble in its intent and the prayers and invocations spoken in the lyrical Elizabethan language from the old Book of Common Prayer, lofty and inspiring. It marked the beginning of my lifetime career. I was not being ordained to a privileged office, but equipped to be a servant.

It took me a while to get it, but in time I learned.

Sorting out my feelings about the ordination experience happened to fall on the day that former president George H.W. Bush’s funeral service was held at the National Cathedral. It too, was lofty and inspiring, but this occasion marked the end of a life of service, not the beginning.

In a way, the funeral at the Washington Cathedral reminded me of my ordination. Both services were held in large cathedrals, both magnificent settings that were regal, elegant, communicating how serving others was a noble calling. For former president Bush, the funeral at the National Cathedral celebrated the years of service he offered to our nation. The funeral was a celebration of one leader’s life as a public event. The service united us in collective thanks for his contribution to the world. He presided over the end of the Cold War without a shot being fired.

My ordination at St. John the Divine was not the end of a career of service, but instead a ceremonial beginning, essentially commissioning me in the words of Jesus, to “love one another as I have loved you.” Then, I was as green as grass and only imagined how living out such a charge might be like. The overriding themes of the ordination rite and the presidential funeral liturgy highlighted a fundamental human responsibility, each rite in its own way claiming that serving others is the highest calling for all of us whether offered professionally or in the practice of daily life. Who doesn’t want to know that someone cares enough about who we are to look after us?

Teaching, medicine, nursing, psychology, healthcare, ministry, social work, emergency services and some arms of public service are generally regarded as “helping professions.” Almost any service others provide for our well- being are strictly speaking “helping,” but the above-mentioned vocations are directed specifically to psychological, spiritual, physiological, and social needs with specialists equipped to deliver them.

There’s a common thread woven through the helping professions but how some deliver their services differs dramatically, like the neurosurgeon. He or she functions in much tighter parameters, than say the teacher, nurse and clergyman who enjoy greater latitude in performing their duties. One British neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh, in his fine book, “Do No Harm” describes his work like the men who defuse bombs and mines. The window for error is crushingly small for such surgeons. Marsh says that neurosurgeons breed a kind of hyper attentiveness in performing their craft. Attention dare not drift even for a second. It’s always a matter of life and death.

For clergy and politicians, and I suspect for nurses, teachers, psychologists and social workers, the services they provide are intimately wrapped around the personalities through which they mediate their service. An ability to feel compassion is the sine qua non for this group; the kinder they are, the more enduring their impact in and out of their professional roles.

I’ve often thought of Jimmy Carter as compassionate. His political successes are not remembered as much as the impact of his person. Like Bush has was a one term president and humble by nature. Carter did not have a dynamic personality. He was not a great speaker and he did micro-manage the White House. His presidency did not enjoy the same successes as Obama and Clinton, but for integrity he had no parallel. If white conservative Christians today think they are getting bad press from fake news, they might look to president Carter for the inspiration they need to polish their image. A born-again Southern Baptist from Georgia, a religious conservative, who after his presidency, returned to his roots in Plains to continue a life of service. He still teaches Sunday School, lives in a rancher valued at about $240,000, and receives about half the retirement pension that Obama and Clinton enjoy in retirement. Recently, he left his life-long church affiliation in protest against its failure to support gender reform. He has been responsible for housing thousands of the poor worldwide by promoting Habitat for Humanity. He’s been a tireless advocate for peace and was successful in establishing a Middle East Truce.

As the saying goes, Carter walked the walk as did Bush, but in very different ways.

The funeral of George H.W. Bush, and that of Senator McCain recently highlighted in painfully sharp relief what today we are missing in public life. Committed and caring, these men were different in temperament; Bush, the steady handed patrician, McCain, the firebrand and scrapper and Carter the plodder. Despite differences these men dignified us and the country by their commitment to public life and service. They cared; they cared for the people, the nation’s institutions, and they honored the men and women who serve them.

It’s written in scripture: “And whoever will be great among you, let him first be your servant.”

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.

Free, White And Twenty-One by George Merrill

This phrase, ‘Free, White and Twenty-One’ represents a significant, albeit unfortunate, piece of the American story, particularly for whites who once felt an unassailable sense of entitlement. It declares that anyone free, white and twenty-one is beholden to no one. But let’s talk some about color for a minute. It gets complicated.

Is white even a color? Many say yes, others say maybe, some say no. A few will tell you yes and no. Personally, I think white is a color.

Although I’ve never seen one until just recently, I read how several “Flag of the Races” had been created in the sixties to highlight the realities of racial diversity. One flag had five colored stripes comprising red, black, brown, yellow and white, all woven into the same fabric, representing the skin hues of various peoples, worldwide.  The flag celebrated color differences, but differences woven into one fabric, as we’d hope our nation of immigrants would be.

Racial segregation in the United States, however, has been framed primarily in binary terms, white vs. non-white.  I believe the way America frames race is pejorative. While reading the other day about how the white majority will soon become the minority in the States, it occurred to me that in common racial parlance, white is not assumed to be a color.

This must be why we have wound up calling non-whites, people of color. I question the designation, “people of color.” In fact, it’s a misnomer.

Words make a difference. Words can harbor unwholesome notions; they can cloak hidden agendas that actually divide members of a community. The use of certain words can support untruths, and are more than just white lies, or more disturbingly still, exclusively white lies. The truth is that the worldwide population is nothing else but people of color. The only legitimate distinctions we might make is what the particular hue might be.

The phrase ‘people of color’ suggests that the world’s standard for skin color is white and everyone else’s is therefore, colored. Or that black and brown are colors and white is not. If I tell you, as an Episcopalian, that all others who are not Episcopalian, are non-Episcopalians, you’d see right through me. You’d know I was framing the discussion in such a way inferring that Episcopalians remain the measure of all things with the additional suggestion of their superiority.

As I think about it, the words ‘white’ and ‘non-white,’ are words that have carved the entire human universe along racial lines and I don’t recall anyone challenging this distinction until fairly recently. Like so much in the unexamined life, a lot gets taken for granted that would not stand up to the light of day. The assumption of a world divided into white and non-white is not the comforting thought it had once been, especially today for white Americans. Today’s whites are soon to become a minority in the United States. With this new population shift comes some serious soul searching for whites. What will happen to the sense of well-being that we whites once enjoyed by being a majority as well as having the vaunted status that being a majority can suggest?

The way we word things makes a difference.

In a similar way, we treat the earth as we treat one another, that is, we may honor and treasure others and the earth or simply use the earth and other people as marketable commodities. The distinction between human and non-human, like white and non-white, many still cling to. It can be useful in suggesting a position of strength in any bargaining situation. Some of the destructive overdevelopment and species extinctions we’ve created have resulted from the ‘non-human’ having no voice in how the water, the air and the earth is used.

Corporate money still overpowers any local or state environmental protections as we can already see here on the Shore and on the national scene; The present administration is rapidly rolling back the environmental protections that once offered a voice for the land, water and the air. In a discussion of using the earth’s resources, all parties bring lawyers to the table, except the natural world under discussion. Especially here on the Shore we can see where this is taking us. The natural world is severely underrepresented because it is, well, non-human, as if being human is still the measure of all things. The Environmental Protection Agency, originally created to protect the planet does not represent our planet any more. The planet is now being represented by Corporate industries.

The present administration has launched a vicious character assault on immigrants, many of whom are of skin colors other than white. Part of the strategy is to stoke an old fear in white Americans, the fear of the “other,” the ‘people of color’ who are not white. Listening to our leadership stoking fear is a variation on a familiar theme popular during the Jim Crow era. We were warned that blacks were dangerous because, if not kept in their place, they would rape our women, steal our money, devalue our property and murder our children. Today the administration imputes to migrants’ similar attributes – although updated: if we admit immigrants they will steal jobs, deal drugs and be members of gangs, and of course, rape our women. Listening to the president’s rhetoric or seeing his tweets is like ‘déjà vu all over again.’ However, this time it’s not only blacks who are being maligned, but Muslims and other Middle-Eastern peoples.

I am not color blind. I would not suggest I’d be better off if I were. I would say just the opposite; best to be very aware of color. I am very much aware of a person’s skin hue. I am blessed to be old enough to be curious about a person’s difference rather than fearful of them. What are their stories? How do they see life? What has been their history? There’s a trove of marvelous stories we white have never heard. I have heard some and many are inspirational. We’re the poorer for never having heard them all.

Just imagine a world that is all white. I find it chilling. We’d be like the Inuit. Everywhere we look we’d see only vast expanses of whiteness. I’ve known some folk that relish just such all-white landscapes. They find diversity unsettling.

It’s color that add spice to 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.

A Tip of My Hat by George Merrill

I recently had surgery. The wound was messy. When I came home I wasn’t sure I knew how to change the dressing. My wife and I went to the Choice One Urgent Care Clinic in Easton. They dressed the wound and showed me how to care for it. They were helpful.

Today medical facilities send satisfaction surveys to patients inquiring about their experience.

The questions are interesting. They’re variations of what I would call social courtesies or even kindnesses. Questions like was I listened to? Were staff and physicians attentive to my needs? Was I made to feel at ease and appropriately reassured? The focus of the survey seemed less about any particulars of the medical interventions I received and mostly about the way they were delivered. It seemed to me the primary question being asked was ‘did I feel treated as a person worthy of respect?’

I did.

Today’s hot button issues revolve around just such matters; how we treat one another. The #metoo movement grew out of a long history of women who were not treated as though they were worthy of respect or common courtesy, The civil rights movement was a cry for dignity and respect. The effects of disrespect have created a kind of social dissonance which deprives us all of that sense of basic goodness and belonging that we all crave in the conduct of our lives.

As an octogenarian, I see the passing of many social courtesies once generally observed. Even to name some probably earns me the ‘fossil of the year award.’

There was a time when meeting someone for the first time, you extended them the courtesy of a title, like addressing them, Mrs. or Mr. Smith, until they invited you to call them by their given name. Leading with first name seems to me superficial, intimacy not earned, and not creating the space beginning relationships need for blending. Familiarity is not the same as intimacy. Intimacy is gained by trust and it takes time.

Public discourse has grown crude. “Saying it like it is” has become revered by some as no-nonsense truth telling. It has earned admiration in some quarters, even heroism or a mark of personal authenticity by others. ‘Saying it like it is’ frequently involves putting matters in the crudest possible terms what normally would not be said at all in polite company or if said at all, certainly more tactfully. The ‘in your face’ character of ‘saying it like it is’ gains attention, but leaves shaky credibility. If our experience in the last year is any indication, saying it like it is can be just as deceptive and misleading as any slick con-artist. Saying it “like it is” is designed to gain attention, a form of exhibitionism, and not to establish truth. Tact is becoming obsolete.

Social courtesies are a way of acknowledging and honoring community norms. Men once removed their hats as a token of respect upon entering a house or church. Such gestures signify that we agree certain places or occasions warrant respect.

I watched an old movie from the forties noting the way people dressed in public places. My guess is that dressing more formally was not a statement as much about themselves as it was extending a courtesy to others with whom they were gathered. Being seen in public required some implied deference to others, the way some of us today might dress for religious services, weddings and funerals.

The absence of commonly observed social courtesies lends to a feeling of unease and uncertainty – if not suspicion among strangers. A culture that has ceased observing social courtesies becomes the unweeded garden that Shakespeare once described: “where things rank and gross grow untended.”

We’re not taught how to relate to others. We’re flaming individualists, but clueless in a community.

Op-ed columnist David Shribman, writing in the Star Democrat recently, tells of Kerry Cronin, a professor at Boston College. She believes there’s a scarcity of social skills today, particularly for young people who have no idea how to date. She offers a freshman course in dating which has become heavily subscribed. Surprisingly, almost none of her students have dated. They don’t know how to ask someone out or to plan a nice outing. They are not sure how to pick someone up, who’s to pay and how to talk in ways that help couples get to know and trust each other. “This,” says Dr. Cronin, “is a lost social script.”

I find her course a creative way to teach our young what today’s world has lost to modernity: being with each other sensitively and graciously.

She describes her class. “Dating teaches you how to begin to say things that you really mean, which is on the way to be able to make a promise and keep it. And although not all dating leads to a commitment, it is a way to start practicing keeping your word and meaning what you say with your words, your body and your time.”

After class she assigns students homework – specifically arranging a date. They come to class afterward and share how it went. “They talk about how it felt to make themselves vulnerable, about their fears, about choosing the person for the date and how hard it was to take a chance. One of the big things for them was what to talk about on the date, what to ask that is not too personal, but is still personal.”

Shribman makes this astute observation about the importance of dating. He believes that the dating deficit is serious because it grows out of the social and cultural crisis we have in the ways we are dealing with one another.

I was happily reminded of how important it is no matter what is at stake. Whether treating wounds or just meeting people on the checkout line at a supermarket, practicing grace, tact and kindness helps us all to feel a valued part of a community.

A tip of my hat to Professor Cronin.

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

A Tale of Two Cities by George Merrill

This is a tale of two cities: Baltimore, Maryland and Seoul, South Korea. It’s a story I tell in the spirit of Thanksgiving.

The story involves two young girls from places worlds apart. Nell is six – she was born and lives in Baltimore. Chloe, is nineteen and lives in Vermont. She was born in South Korea. Nell and Chloe don’t know each other. Chloe’s mom told me Chloe’s story. Nell’s grandma told me Nell’s.

One day her mom went with Nell, her baby brother and some friends to the Baltimore Aquarium. It was cold and rainy. An outing with young children was just the thing for the day. They spent the morning at the Aquarium and decided to stay around the Inner Harbor long enough to have lunch. They chose a place along Pratt Street. In the restaurant, they were seated next to a large floor to ceiling window where they could watch the bustling crowds outside walking by in the rain. Nell is, gregarious, a people watcher and contemplative.

Just outside the window a man sat in his wheel chair in the rain. He had a sign indicating that he needed help. People kept passing him by, no one giving him so much as a glance.

Nell became fascinated with the man in the wheel chair and she watched him intently. She soon asked her mom: “Why does everyone walk by like they don’t even see him?” Mom tried her best to answer Nell’s question. She described how there were people who had nowhere to live, no job and didn’t have a mother or father or anyone to look after them.

Nell was surprised that he had no parents. That was an unthinkable thought.

Soon Nell was asking a lot of questions, one of which she reiterated several times: “Why is it that when all the people pass by they don’t see him.” That seemed to trouble her more than anything, even more than the man sitting outside in the cold and rain. Mom explained to Nell that he might be needing money or food since homeless people often had no resources of their own. He was sitting there with his sign hoping someone would come to help him.

It’s a frightening thing to consider that we can be invisible to others.

Nell said, “I can give him some of my food.”

“Don’t open the bottle of water on the table,” she urged mom while she gathered some food from her plate and found another plate to put food on. They all went out together to give the man food and water. At first Nell was intimidated by how worn and unkempt he appeared. She hesitated for a moment. Nell then offered him the plate of food and the water. He, too, appeared uncertain, but after a moment took it.

Then he looked directly at Nell and said, “Thank you,” and turning his head to her baby brother, said, “Hi there’ big fella.” Nell looked directly at the man.

Mom, Nell and baby brother then went on their way. Nell’s attention wandered somewhere thinking the thoughts that children entertain.

Some years ago, far from Baltimore, Chloe’s adoptive parents took her and her younger sister back to South Korea in search of their roots. Her adoptive mom describes Chloe as ‘comfortable in her own skin, content with herself.’ She’s confident. As a small child, she exhibited a compassionate disposition, eagerly volunteering in her community to read for disenfranchised children and assisting in health services for the homeless. Chloe is a feeder. Once she hoped to be a nurse.

The family stayed at an upscale hotel in Seoul and for the first week toured the city. Like Baltimore, the city bustles. The whole family was struck by the apparent affluence of the city. The hotel was located directly above the subway. On their first subway trip, Chloe saw the shadow side of the apparently opulent Seoul. Homeless and disenfranchised men and women sat along the walls of the station platforms, begging. Chloe, not unfamiliar with homelessness, was troubled to see it in Seoul’s subway. Perhaps she wished for a more compassionate world in her own native land? I don’t know.

“Why are they there?” she’d ask. “Is there anyone who cares enough to look after them?” The experience rocked her. Neither Nell in Baltimore nor Chloe in Seoul could understand how what they were seeing could happen. Inequality is a timeless and troubling matter. In various forms, it appears worldwide.

Chloe quickly mobilized. The classy hotel they stayed in had health and beauty packets in the bathrooms which contained generous amounts of personal toiletry items. Chloe began collecting them. On her trips to the subway station she would issue them to the needy recipients, bowing to each respectfully in the manner Koreans offer their salutations.

A food court at the hotel offered quality Korean food. Chloe soon concluded that these subway residents needed good cooked meals more than a beautician. With her parents help, Chloe bought takeout food to bring to her new charges. Again, in her trips she delivered the food ceremoniously, bowing in salutation and being bowed to in greeting. They saw each other, the way Nell and the man in the wheel chair had. Neither remained invisible to the other.

Offering hospitality to the stranger is perhaps the most ancient of all the world’s social customs. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” ancient scripture exhorts us.

Do you suppose that when we entertain the stranger, we flip the ancient equation; that by entertaining the stranger, we become the angels?

Wishing you every blessing for Thanksgiving.

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.