“Above all,” writes the famous paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, “trust in the slow work of God.” He continues, “ . . . it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability – and that it may take a very long time.” At eighty-three, I’m learning to trust the slow work of time, which is, I’m sure, the slow work of God.
It’s autumn on the Shore, harvest season. I, too, am well into the harvest time of my own life. In my mind I frequently survey the landscape where I once sowed, the Island I was born on, and the various landscapes through which I’ve passed since. I see some things are gone, others have changed, and a few brought to fruition. My landscape has widened. The world of my youth was an insular one and now, with time, it’s become a global one.
Fall heralds the end of one season and begins another. It’s a time of transformation and for me, heightened awareness. I first see transformation in falling leaves and vibrant colors, but also in the autumn light. It assumes a softer character, so different than the garish light of mid-summer. On the edges of significant changes, I become more alert, as I might while driving through unknown terrain. Having arrived at the harvest time of my life, I return occasionally to the fields where I’ve sown.
Even with fall’s beauty radiating everywhere, I must confess I also feel tinges of melancholy, or is it nostalgia? I’m not sure.
I suspect that melancholy is the deepening awareness of my own vanishing history that grows more dim with the passage of time. There’s magical energy associated with the “firsts” of our lives. The excitement diminishes with time: the thrill of the first bicycle (it was a second-hand refurbished one as the war was on and few were made); the smell of my first new car; my first puppy named Pete who died of distemper; the first trip to the Statue of Liberty where I walked up the spiral staircase to see the harbor from its crown; there was my first love. There was the first photograph I took, developed the negatives and made the prints.
As a teen I was a lifeguard on the beaches of Staten Island. I once rescued someone. It was the only time and I recall it vividly. The slow work of God, sixty-seven years in this instance.
Growing up on the Island, the ethnic and racial differences were not as obvious as they are today. I knew no Asian kids in school, only one African-American and no Hispanics except once when, as a lifeguard, I rescued a little girl. It was my first hand introduction to how vulnerable and lonely being a stranger in the land can be.
The surf is gentle on Island beaches and bathers have to walk some distance to get in deeper water. It’s a safe place.
One day a thin and frail looking woman (in those days I would have said a foreigner) came over to the observation chair and got my attention by tapping me on the foot. I could see she was frightened and she pointed out to the water and muttered something – I think now it was in Spanish – I couldn’t understand. She beckoned me frantically to follow her to the water line. She pointed to a little girl who was out some distance, but not yet over her head. I could see the girl was standing. The water, however, was up to her chin. She was frozen with panic, afraid to move. I took large strides into the water, put my arm around her waist and walked her toward the shore. She clung to me and I could feel her shivering with fear. As we made our way to the shoreline, I felt a surge of protective compassion for her even though I knew nothing about her and was sure she was not really in much danger. The mother rushed over, put her arms around her, and looked at me in a way that said she was grateful, but, I suspect, also feeling awkward that she couldn’t tell me since she spoke no English.
In retrospect I believe I read the scene accurately. The mother and her child could speak no English. My guess now is they were Hispanic. After I returned to the beach I felt an overwhelming sadness. What must it be like to be in trouble in a strange place that you know no one? What can you do when you are afraid, but cannot speak the language of the people around you? I can only imagine how acutely vulnerable she felt and how hard it must have been for her to trust anyone. She didn’t speak the language, which would only have marginalized her more.
I often took the ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan, passing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island hundreds of times on the way. Both fascinated me. I saw them as the symbols of what America aspired to be, namely, a nation ennobled by offering hospitality to the stranger, a sanctuary for the tired and the poor.
Once I was a stranger.
A few years ago I took an elderly woman to a hospital while I was in Puerto Rico. She’d fallen and had lost considerable blood. She was diabetic and hadn’t eaten for hours. I spoke no Spanish. The halls were filled with patients milling about. I didn’t know where to go where to take my concerns. Doctors and nurses didn’t wear identifying uniforms. I asked some people where to register, where to go. They shrugged their shoulders in a kindly way, but indicated they spoke no English.
I felt desperate and lost.
“You don’t speak Spanish?” a short plump woman asked me. She had a lovely smile. I told her my dilemma. She oriented me to the hospital procedures, identified a doctor and even asked me where I’d parked. “The police will take your car if it’s in the wrong place,” she warned me. “It’ll be hard to get back.” Unlike the little Spanish girl of my Island epic, I could in this instance – with almost tears in my eyes –communicate my gratitude to her in a language she understood.
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
Susan Peel says
Thank you for another inspiring and emotional mediation.