Back Talk by George Merrill

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I can’t walk the same distances I once did. Now I take a more leisurely pace and cover less turf. When I was younger I may have covered more territory, but I saw less of it. As my perimeters shrink, my vision broadens.

This is about how my unruly back reconnected me to neighbors, some I’d met, two for the first time.

Again, as it has over the years, my perverse back is dictating the terms of my life. Of the manifold gifts with which my creator has blessed me, a strong back is not one. I can only assume I was issued a leftover, a rebuilt, but not the custom fitted kind that do well and accommodate an individual’s peculiarities. Mine overreacts. It talks back.

I really shouldn’t complain. Generally, it has worked for and with me. At times, my back has even showed a willingness to rejuvenate itself, putting me back on my feet walking with my customarily brisk pace. Not recently, however.

As a result, my awareness has shifted. Getting there (wherever ‘there’ might be) is not as big a deal as it once was. It’s what I discover along the way that’s become the big deal.

Right now, my walking consists of several trips a day from my studio up the driveway to the mailbox and back. A ten-minute walk. Once I leave the studio, I am surrounded by trees. I see some of them from the studio windows and a host more leaving the studio and going to the mailbox. Since it’s no big thing about my destination – a regular mailbox – it’s what happens on the way that’s been energizing. Noticing the trees for one thing.

Of course, living here thirty years I have seen the trees before, but in not the same way. On one trip to the mail box, I hugged a large conifer tree. I’d never hugged a tree. What I had not noticed before was how large the boles of most of the conifers were. The trees must have been there fifty or sixty years. Performing the hug, I couldn’t get my fingers to touch when wrapping my arms around the trunk.

All those years I’d driven down the driveway past the pines, I’d never noticed how, when viewed close up, the bark looks like an alligator’s hide. The bark has the appearance of an assemblage of wood chips, secured to the tree like miniature wooden shingles. Ivy makes its way up some trees, weaving its vines under the wood chips, making it impossible to pull the ivy loose.

The rough tree bark does not make a hug feel like the warm-fuzzy I might wish. I felt self-conscious, too, and looked around to see if anyone was watching. Just squirrels, some sweet gum trees, two maples and more conifers.

When I’m walking unhurriedly, I like to stop and pan the area like a cinematographer seeking the broadest view of the landscape. It also rests my back.

That’s when I saw a large clod of dirt moving across the path directly in front of me. It alarmed me at first. It was about half again as big as my open hand and its movement was slow and unsteady. Moving closer I could see that the lump of dirt was riding on the shell of a huge turtle that I assumed to be a snapping turtle. My suspicions proved correct. I tried moving him to the side of the road where he would be out of harm’s way. He was not grateful at all. As I nudged him with my foot over to the roadside, his neck shot out. Fortunately, he went for my foot which was well to his stern and out of reach even as he moved sideways to get at it. He hissed menacingly at me. Don’t tread on me was written all over him.

I found a stick and tried nudging him to the roadside. He made a grab for the stick, momentarily bit down on it with a crunch, growling and hissing and, I’m sure, if that stick had been my toe he would have had it for breakfast. I retrieved the stick, kept poking at him until he fell into the narrow culvert, shell side up. He was home free.

Despite his thankless rebuffs, I was committed to his safety. I made it to the mailbox feeling like the good Samaritan despite no show of appreciation from the turtle. Fortunately, goodness has its own rewards.

I decided to go left on the intersecting road and walk a little further to my neighbor’s mailbox. Along the road between mailboxes is a gully. It was filled with water from the rains.

As I walked along I’d hear a ‘squeak’, and then a ‘plop’ as a basking frog, alarmed by my presence, made for the water. Walking further, the same: a squeak’, a couple of ‘croaks’ and ‘plops,’ frog after frog abandoned his day in the sun to take refuge in the water. I had no idea my presence could be so intrusive. After all, I didn’t even know they were there much less see them and still they were offended at my simply walking the road and minding my own business. I was beginning to feel like a pariah.

My day was redeemed when, returning to my own mailbox, I saw at the entrance to the driveway a good-sized butterfly. She was not gloriously adorned like a monarch; in fact, she was plain with her blue-black wings that had a small smidgen of white at the base of each. She was standing on the ground, her wings fluttering occasionally, as if to maintain her balance. She rocked slightly forward and then backward, as though she were trying to gain a footing to take off. I stopped close by, my foot inches from her, fully prepared for another rejection. She took wing and flew in zig zag circles, but, to my surprise and delight, quickly returned to exactly from where she’d taken flight; near my left foot. She obviously did not think I was a danger or some kind of creepy man to hiss at or flee from; for that moment, I was just a neighbor out there standing by my mailbox.

As a part of my healing I’ve found checking in with the neighbors now and then is important. It’s easy to forget they are so close and except for one turtle with an attitude, most are a comfort. In that brief walk, my world grew slightly bigger.

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.

Letters to Editor

  1. Beautiful, George.

  2. Upon reading your most exciting and informative article, REVISITING NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES by David LaMotte, I was most eager to share my reaction to this most profound revelation to George Merrill. It has been sometime since I was in possession of his personal email and was unable to send him my correlation of this article with a most disturbing and painful experience that he enabled within one of his workshops that I attended. Indeed, I have, over the years, sent him many letters explaining the hurt and humiliation that he precipitated which was most shocking since he is a member of the cloth yet another minister who effected me profoundly. I would be most appreciate if , as the editor, you would pass on this message to George in order to bring closure to his painful offense and the opportunity to resolve this sinful action , in our later years, before a judgement is rendered by the Lord.

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