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Seasons come

10springIsn’t it beautiful when spring arrives? Even that blanket of yellow dust on every surface is lovely. As suffocating as it can be, pollen points to change, to winter coming to an end. Soon after, every tree, bush, flower and blade of grass awakens to the warmth of spring. When pollen season hits, everything lying in wait of warm weather comes bursting forth. The colors are vibrant. Flowers bloom. Grass is green. It’s a stunning sight after the bareness of winter.

We know what pollen brings. Pollen signals a natural segue to life. Does anyone actually care about that wave of pollen after flowers start blooming? We all know the sights, tastes, sounds and smells of spring. We know the life it brings.

But eventually, after summer’s warmth and the cool of fall, winter sets in again. Everything that came to life in the spring has run its cycle and dies again. Winter brings crunchy leaves. Pine needles become pine straw, and the colors of fall turn to grays and browns. Trees are bare. Forests seem quite vulnerable, with every branch on display, light touching places it just couldn’t reach in the fullness of summer.

There’s a certain line of trees on the farm I grew up on that I’m reminded of when I think about winter. Several years ago, I took my dog for a walk down my parents’ road, a road I had walked umpteen times in my life, and I noticed a field I had never paid attention to before.

My family didn’t own it, so my childhood farm adventures never took me to explore it. The pine trees had shed all of their needles, and I could see straight through to the other side. In the distance, I could see a high school football field, the silver lights shining in the sunshine, matching the height of the trees nearby.

It wasn’t until winter that I could see clearly just how close we were to the local high school. I never realized it until all the trees were bare.

I think God created seasons to show us more about our lives. Some things remain hidden until the thick of winter.

It’s in the winters of our lives — the hardest times, the toughest times, the loneliest times — that everything feels lifeless and stripped bare. We’re vulnerable. Exposed. The tiniest bit of light shining on us displays the hurt, the grief, the regret, the despair, the bitterness we feel. And it seems like those in close proximity can see right through us, no matter how hard we try to hide.

But there’s always more if we look past the surface. There’s so much good to be found in winter.

That same feeling of vulnerability can be used as a tunnel to our own heart. Things we didn’t even know we were capable of, whether good or bad, are suddenly uncovered. There’s an unfamiliar clarity we can use to our advantage if we take a moment to see it.

Winter sets the stage for the life that comes with spring. Ann Bradstreet once said, “If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.” How true that is. Spring is always right around the corner. You will never see a winter that doesn’t have spring following behind it. Spring is coming. Spring is here.

If we stay in this mindset that winter will last forever, we’ll miss the glimpses of a new season coming. Change is hard. Especially when winter has become comfortable. But God sends agents of change that make us feel uncomfortable, the “pollen,” if you will, and it sometimes seems anything but lovely. It will make us sneeze, make our eyes water and make us have to wash our car more. It’s a huge nuisance more than anything else.

But if we can embrace life’s “pollen,” the uncomfortable means by which we make a change, knowing it brings life and life more abundant, we can notice the growth. What we once thought was dead has come alive again, and it’s morebeautiful than ever.

Spring is here, and it so lovely.

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Critical thinking on today’s issues: A change in focus and strategy

04CriticalAfter much prayer and soul-searching, it is clear that the time has come for me to make a change in my focus and strategy. That is, regarding what should be central in my effort to help build a better world ... and how to best pursue that goal. This decision has resulted in two changes thus far — focus on promoting critical thinking among citizens relative to political and social issues and changing my voter registration from Republican to unaffiliated.

I have struggled, for some time, with thoughts of not being on the right track for doing the task God desires of me at this point in my life. Some serious quiet time, and writing my last four columns, brought clarity far beyond what I have previously experienced. The first three columns constituted a series titled “Developing and sustaining thought deprivation.” These columns addressed how politicians and others who pursue power deprive citizens of the freedom to think critically about issues and policies … about all that affects our country.

The fourth column was titled “The push for ‘Medicare for All’ is thought deprivation in full view.” It explained how thought deprivation is at work in the championing of Medicare for All as a health care program. All four columns are available under “Articles” at www.karlmerritt.com.

I had previously given some attention to this thought deprivation process and the resulting manipulation of people through its employment. Doing the research, and thinking through various considerations as I wrote those columns, led me to the need for this finer focus on promoting critical thinking among citizens relative to political and social issues.

Then there is the decision to change my voter registration to unaffiliated. I was a registered Democrat for more than 40 years. After learning more about Republican values, it became obvious to me that those values aligned much more with mine than those of the Democratic Party. Consequently, eight years ago, I changed my affiliation to Republican and became active in the party.

Let me be crystal clear in saying my current decision to change affiliation had absolutely nothing to do with any mistreatment of me by anybody in the party. I am well aware that Republicans are routinely accused of being racist and not interested in involving or helping better the condition of black Americans. Whether at a state convention or local party events, I always felt welcomed and respected and that my voice was heard.

I never got the impression that my being black was a problem for any Republican I encountered. Be reminded ... I grew up in South Georgia in the 1950s and ’60s. I know racism when I see it.

Here are my primary reasons for the change to unaffiliated.

First, my observation is that no political party gives anywhere near adequate attention to helping citizens think critically through issues, or candidates, on which they must vote. That is, neither party forthrightly presents facts and allows for honest, reasoned and civil examination of those facts.

Instead, there are candidate debates where no topic is given this kind of attention. Phone calls are made to voters by individuals or a machine. A script is used, and there is no opportunity for productive discussion. These actions take place in an atmosphere where candidates, along with their supporters and surrogates, verbally attack one another and employ scare tactics.

Then there are the media ads that, I hold, for the most part, insult the intelligence of voters.

The ultimate indicator, I believe, that critical thinking is not promoted comes when voters have to survive the gauntlet of people handing out candidate information as voters enter polling places. Having the gauntlet says to me it is assumed people routinely go to the polling place having not decided how they will vote. Add to all of this the fact that media is almost devoid of programming that promotes, or even gives an opportunity for, critical thought.

The condition described in the preceding paragraph screams “thought deprivation.” No political party appears willing to correct course. That state of affairs is proving extremely destructive to America.

The second reason for my voter affiliation change is I need to be in a position to reach people of various political persuasions. That is: Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, unaffiliated, everybody. We are at a level of division, and pure hate, where I no longer think I can reach people if I am affiliated with a political party. The assumptions made about people because of party affiliation, to a sizeable extent, make productive civil discourse impossible.

I recently had a conversation with a black lady who commented to me that she hated President Trump. I asked why that was the case. She went into a speech about how he was not doing anything good for the country. In those comments, she said that Republicans are “just out for themselves.”

I stopped her and said, “I am a Republican. Are you saying I am out for myself?” Her response was a resounding, “Yes.”

She went on to say she could reach that conclusion regarding me simply because I was a Republican. From that one fact, she could identify my innermost motives. As sad as it is, this is where we are. It is unfair but true.

However, if my effort to promote critical thinking is to stand a chance, the obstacle represented by what that lady said to me must be eliminated or at least lessened in intensity. Even though I will not compromise my values or cease speaking truth as I see it, I hope that the unaffiliated status will lessen the door-closing stereotyping that comes with being identified with a political party.

Third, individuals who are actively involved in a political party are, as a matter of practice, expected to support candidates of that party. This is especially true of persons who hold office in a party. I am not willing to adhere to that expectation or rule. I first started to realize this was a problem for me when Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., joined in sponsoring legislation to prevent Trump from having authority to fire Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Even though the president repeatedly argued that Mueller’s investigation was “a witch hunt,” Trump always said he would allow it to finish. Consequently, I did not view the legislation as necessary. Now that the special counsel’s report is finished, there definitely was no need for legislation.

I got past the Mueller episode. Then, Tillis said he recognized the illegal immigration emergency on our southern border; however, he would vote for a resolution of disapproval in order to stop Trump from declaring a national emergency and redirecting funds for wall construction and other security measures. At the very last minute, Tillis voted to support the president’s action. That change of heart came too late for me.

As reported in an article by Brian Murphy titled “Tillis backs Trump on border enforcement. Why he won’t support emergency declaration,” here is the reason Tillis gave for his opposition. “As a U.S. senator, I cannot justify providing the executive with more ways to bypass Congress. As a conservative, I cannot endorse a precedent that I know future left-wing presidents will exploit to advance radical policies that will erode economic and individual freedoms,” Tills wrote.

As I write this section, news reports this very day say the southern border is being overrun by illegal migrants… there is an absolute crisis. For years, Congress has done nothing to effectively address this matter and is doing nothing now — zero. Zilch. There is pure incompetence, and Tillis wants to protect Congress so it can go on being incompetent on this matter and a multitude of others.

I realized that I would very likely not support Tillis for reelection. Tillis is just one example. There are other Republicans that I will publicly oppose and persons from other parties that I will support. This approach would not play well with fellow Republicans, or in any other political party and would hinder my ability to do the essential work described here.

In the big picture:

1. I will continue writing articles and books. I’ll be available for, and seek, speaking engagements.

2. I will personally organize and conduct public events that allow for citizens to be heard but also become informed in ways that promote critical thinking regarding the issues of our time. I’ll insist that individuals who speak at, or facilitate, these information-sharing events deal in facts and reason.

3. I will publish an e-newsletter.

4. I will personally fund this effort and operate it under my privately owned business, karlmerritt.com, LLC.

5. I will accept non-tax-deductible donations. This will be the only time I write, in my Up & Coming Weekly column, about this effort. Persons wanting to receive information in the future regarding this effort should visit karlmerritt.com and complete and submit a “Contact Karl” form. You will be put on the distribution list.

My thanks to Bill Bowman and Stephanie Crider, publisher and associate publisher of Up & Coming Weekly, respectively, for allowing me to share this information in a column.

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Snakes on a stick

03SnakesHave you ever wondered how a snake wrapped around a stick came to be the symbol of physicians? Probably not. Bear with me anyway.

Maybe you just wondered how long Dook will keep recruiting One & Dones and not winning the basketball championship. How long before Coach K finally realizes that sending out a different flock of freshman each year into the Big Dance isn’t getting the job done? But that is a story for another day.

Today, we are going to try to answer Greek mythology’s version of Samuel L. Jackson’s classic statement in the greatest movie ever released in 2006, the immortal “Snakes on a Plane.” In that movie, Sam uttered the immortal words (herein cleaned up, as this is a family newspaper), “I’ve had it with these gosh darned snakes on this gosh darned plane!”

Today, we shall learn how that gosh darned snake got on the doctor’s stick.

Once upon a time, a major Greek god named Apollo got up close and personal with the lovely goddess Coronis. From this union they begat their son Asclepius. Because his name was so hard to pronounce, his buddies just called him Asky. Coronis, being a big ole friendly gal, was just too frisky for one man to keep her satisfied. While preggers with Asky, she went off on a long weekend to Myrtle Beach during the high holy days with her old boyfriend, Iskhys.

A little bird, a raven, told Apollo about Coronis’ dalliance with Izzy. This did not sit well with Apollo. Apollo sent his cranky sister, Artemis, to kill Coronis. She whacked Coronis using a bunch of arrows covered in plague juice.

Apollo put Coronis to barbecue on the old funeral pyre with Asky still in utero. At the last minute, Apollo decided that his son didn’t need to pay for the sins of his mother. He yanked Asky out of Coronis, saving Asky’s life.

Apollo felt kind of sorry for having Coronis killed, so he did what men in power always do. He blamed someone else.

At the time the raven had tattled on Coronis, the raven’s feathers were all white. To punish the raven for ratting out Coronis, Apollo turned the raven’s feathers black. That is why ravens are black today. Bet you didn’t know that.

Back to our story. Apollo hired the centaur Chiron to raise Asky. Chiron was at least as smart as the famous Mr. Ed. Chiron taught Asky how to heal people. Asky turned out to be an apt pupil. He got so good at healing people that, on occasion, he even raised people from the dead.

Asky, being a universally kind person, went out of his way to be nice to a snake. The snake turned out to be enchanted and could whisper. In a fit of gratitude for Asky’s kindness, the snake licked Asky’s ears clean. While the snake was licking, he whispered into Asky’s ears many secrets for healing the sick.

There are other versions about how the grateful snake ended up on Asky’s rod. One version is based on the “worm theory.” Back in the olden days, it was not uncommon for people to have a long, parasitic worm invade their bodies. In order to get the worms out of people, the physician would make a cut in the person’s body in front of the direction the worm was heading. The worm would poke his head out of the cut. The physician would then wrap the worm around a stick —like wrapping spaghetti around a spoon.

Another version says when God sent fiery serpents to bite the Israelites who had been disobedient to Moses, Moses put up a pole with a bronze snake on it. An Israelite who looked at the bronze snake on the pole would not die from snake bites.

As a result of all these stories, the snake wrapped around a rod became the symbol of physicians.

Under the heading of “no good deed goes unpunished,” all of this healing by Asky began to irritate Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus was afraid that Asky going around healing people and raising the dead might ultimately result in Asky making peoplekind immortal.

The last straw for Zeus occurred when Asky brought Hippolytus back from the dead and got paid for it. Zeus did not want a bunch of humans becoming immortals as rivals to the existing gods. So, Zeus went to his friendly one-eyed neighborhood lightning bolt fabricator, the Cyclops. Using a coupon, he bought a thunderbolt. Zeus then zapped Asky with the thunderbolt, causing Asky to expire.

Asky’s dad, Apollo, was not happy that Zeus killed Asky but was afraid to take on Zeus. Instead, Apollo killed the Cyclops for making the thunderbolt.

Predating the National Rifle Association, Apollo reasoned thunderbolts don’t kill people, Cyclops kill people. As a consolation prize for being dead, Zeus picked up Asky’s lifeless body and hung it in the sky in the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder. Asky remains hanging in the night sky in his very own constellation to this very day. Go out tonight and take a look up at Asky.

And now you know the rest of the story. Snakes on a stick — or on a plane. It’s all the same. Like Roseanne Roseannadanna once said, “It’s always something.”

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Hope Mills Commissioner Jessie Bellflowers responds to residents’ disappointment

03Hope Mills Lake Trey SnipesSince the town of Hope Mills press release March 27, regarding the Hope Mills Lake Bulkhead project, folks have been asking questions and scratching their heads. Most ask, “why now?” and “how long will the lake park, boat ramp and community swimming areas be closed over the summer?’ I hear you, so please allow me to weigh in on both questions.

Let us start with the “why now?” question. During a recent conversation with a friend of mine, I asked him to pick three months out of the year to start the bulkhead project. During our discussion, we decided the winter months would not be optimal because the plan includes about $30,000 of centipede sod. And, the fall months are not optimal because of the active hurricane season. Given the past four years’ fall weather track record, do you really want to risk a $500,000 project to unpredictable weather? No way!

So finally, we ended up saying, “I guess you are right … there really is no right time of the year to complete this project. So let’s get on with it and perhaps the weather will be favorable over the coming months.”

The bulkhead project is Phase II of the Hope Mills Lake Park Recreational Improvement Plan submitted by the Lake Advisory Committee and approved by the town board in 2018. The bulkhead structure addresses the erosion controls measures, as detailed in the United States Army Corps of Engineers Dam Permit, dated August 26, 2016. If you notice, there are several areas along the lakeside bank (cliff, as I call it) that are unsafe — mainly due to uncontrolled erosion of the ground areas.

Also detailed in the Army Corps of Engineers permit is the requirement to improve the lake park area for community recreational use. For example, item 17 states, “The plan should include detail improvements to the public use swimming area, piers/docks, and fishing and boat ramp areas, as well as plans for the museum project.” Therefore, the bulkhead project also includes re-sloping the grade of the lakeside bank/cliff, a new irrigation system throughout the park to feed the centipede sod, new stairs to access the swimming area, an access ramp compliant with the American’s with Disabilities Act and a new kayak/canoe entrance area into the lake. Moreover, more planned recreational improvements that do not require closure of the lake park will be completed once the project is finished.

Unfortunately, the lake park, boat ramp and swimming areas will be closed to complete the above listed lake park improvements. However, kayaks and canoes are permitted to use the lake — dependent on work progress. In addition, Big T’s and the public pier will remain open during the construction project.

Like you, I was looking forward to enjoying the lake park this year. Nevertheless, we must address the current and future erosion damage, or we will not have a lake park that is safe, ADA compliant and more aesthetically pleasing to everyone for years to come. After all, we have a first-class, national award-winning dam structure that has weathered not one, but several major storms since it was completed.

Our town manager, Melissa Adams, said it best: “There really is no optimal time for the lake to be closed for boating and swimming. While we understand there will be some inconvenience to the citizens and the many people that come to use our lake park, the project will result in a safe environment and help mitigate any further erosion damage to the lake embankment. Kayak and canoe access will be allowed to the greatest extent possible, dependent upon work location and progress. The town would like to thank the citizens in advance, for their patience and understanding for the duration of this project.”

Now the “how long” question. The simple answer here is all the required construction materials have been ordered. Once they arrive, the contractors — M&E Contracting of Fayetteville — have clearly stated they plan to work as “expeditiously as possible” to complete the bulkhead project with high quality standards in place.

The lake park is really going to look great once these projects are finished. So, cross your fingers and hope for nice weather.

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Compassion is in us

12KindnessI miss the Sears store. Not because of the big shoe section or tool department, but because it’s where I learned so much about life. 

I grew up in a Midwest city at a time when Sears was still Sears & Roebuck, children were bused from one side of town to another to achieve integration in schools and parents allowed their kids to come in fourth without a trophy. I have many fond memories of trips to the local Sears store — a multistory giant with escalators, an amazing toy section and pretty much anything you’d ever think to buy. 

It’s where I learned the value of a dollar — taught one quarter at a time at the enormous candy counter on the ground floor. With my meager weekly allowance in my pocket, I’d circle the glass island, surveying dozens of options to determine which one was worthy. 

The attendant probably grew weary of me asking “how much would twenty-five cents get me?” of this selection or that. Though I handled the task like a man on a mission, I was merely a boy on a budget. 

Of much greater significance than a white paper bag filled with chocolate stars or peanut clusters, though, I can also trace my awareness of human compassion back to that same Sears store in Wichita, Kansas. 

It happened around the Christmas holiday in the shoe department. I was honestly oblivious to the fact I was being raised in a time of segregation. My father was a Navy veteran. He’d been a corpsman and taught us the value of life without talking about the color of anyone’s skin. My mother was schooled in an institution for the blind. Her friends and coworkers were more likely to bond over ability (and disability) than they were skin color. 

I preface my story with those facts because what happened in the Sears shoe department that particular wintry day is the first time I recall being aware that I rarely saw black people as a young boy. 

As I dangled my legs over the chair, waiting for the clerk to return with the shoes I’d chosen, I overheard a black lady and her two young boys discussing the fact they could only afford shoes for one of the boys that day. More than that, I noticed the clerks kept walking past them to help other customers as the mother told the boys, “Be patient, we’ll get our turn.” 

While it sounded like an otherwise normal conversation, I recall wondering why no one was helping them with their shoes. I wanted to say something. I wanted to do something. I wanted them to get shoes for both boys, and I wanted someone to help them. 

I walked away from the store that day — shoes in hand — never realizing I’d recall that scene hundreds of times in the years since. I know now I was witnessing discrimination. I know now I was witnessing need. And even as a boy, I was moved. Compassion is in us. We all have the capacity to care. And I pray we learn to exercise that capacity to its fullest. 

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