This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Some were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. Others were intended to be more general and to have a longer shelf life. I hope an entry here or there may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!
Send Me an Owl? —by Jinny Batterson
A few weeks ago I may have had a close encounter with an owl. One misty spring morning, I was returning down the entryway to our small condo complex when suddenly something came out of the adjacent woods and hit the left side of my head with considerable force. I’d been strolling along, looking down at the pavement, daydreaming. I was not ready for something to whack the side of my head. It didn’t knock me down, but threw me off balance enough so it took a few seconds to regain my footing. Checking the area of impact for injuries, I found a small gash in my left earlobe, a larger scratch just behind my left ear. Once I’d recovered enough to look around, I couldn’t find anything evident that might have caused the jolt. No earthbound animals were in the area. What had hit me was too heavy to have been a tree-launched squirrel.
Once I got home, I did a little internet research. The phrase “owl strikes” showed up for occasional collisions between owls and humans. Some had occurred in the Atlanta area in recent years. Several morning joggers there had endured successive head-to-owl collisions with late-to-bed owls. When I later puzzled over my incident with local friends who’ve lived in our area longer than I have, they mentioned a possible owl incident that had figured into the aftermath of a Durham, North Carolina murder trial. In a high-profile 2003 case, a well-known author was accused of murdering his wife on a chill winter evening. Though initially convicted, Michael Peterson maintained his innocence and was eventually released after the charge was reduced to man-slaughter. A recent Netflix episode caused a resurrection of the theory that Peterson might in fact have been innocent—the culprit instead an owl who attacked a somewhat tipsy Mrs. Peterson and caused a bloody fall: ( https://www.wired.com/story/the-staircase-netflix-owl-theory/).
My niece, nephews and grandchildren, whatever other generational labels have been applied to them, are all part of a “Harry Potter generation.” Prior to a recent visit with the grandkids, I made my way through the first book of the Potter series. It’s a good read, about a young boy who’s been orphaned and doesn’t fit in with his guardians’ family. Harry eventually finds his way to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he finds kindred spirits and discovers that he’s a wizard, albeit one in need of considerable training. One of the features of Harry’s life at Hogwarts, where much of the series action takes place, is the use of owls to carry messages—a nice live touch, in contrast with the “real” world where communication can seem more and more mechanical. If you’re at Hogwarts hoping someone will communicate with you over a distance, you’ll probably request that they “send you an owl.” One of the members of our family’s younger generation has a plush model owl she’s named “Hedwig” in honor of Harry’s owl. With the grandchildren, we’ve watched parts of several Harry Potter films, including at least one with a message-bearing owl. The actual message delivery must have occurred off-screen or happened while I was dozing, something grandmas do occasionally.
If what hit me earlier this year was in fact an owl, I’m grateful for the non-lethal outcome of the encounter. The calls of owls echo some evenings in nearby woods, one owl in particular sounding out a cadence that mimics “Who cooks for you-u-u-u-u?” If a Hogwarts-style message ever reaches me, I hope its delivery owl will come gently, landing nearby but not on me, and leaving no accompanying injury.
The Durability of Sisterhood —by Jinny Batterson
Over the past several weeks, I’ve attended three “women mostly” events—an NAACP fundraiser and celebration of that group’s NC mother/woman of the year, the annual meeting of our local chapter of the League of Women Voters, and the 50th reunion of my class from then-women’s-college Randolph College. At each event, there were a few men, as official escorts, unofficial companions, or male affiliates, but the focus was mainly on us women. I’d forgotten how good it can feel to be surrounded by other females.
The NC NAACP celebration was the first formal NAACP event I’d attended. Not knowing anyone to tag along with, I went alone. I expected to be a minority at the event—this proved true. The few other white women, none of whom I knew, seemed more connected and more engaged than I felt. The venue was local to Raleigh, but contestants and their supporters came from nearly twenty NAACP chapters throughout the state. Not realizing the flexibility of the event’s scheduling, I’d accepted an invitation to a lunch meeting in a different part of town, so missed the slightly delayed keynote talk by recently named Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Cheri Beasley. Over the part of the event I did attend, I learned that the NAACP has been holding such annual celebrations since the 1950’s.
The LWV Wake County annual meeting had a generally paler audience and was held on a weeknight. Food was higher priced. There was a cash bar. I knew some of the “old stalwarts,” but was pleased to notice younger faces new to me. One older male member I knew, attending without his equally activist spouse, spent a good bit of time talking with me. I wondered if he felt something of an outsider, like my reaction at the NAACP breakfast. The event was tightly scheduled. The business at hand—election of new officers, committee reports, financial updates—was quickly dispatched, assisted by paper agendas. Dinner conversations were pleasant, non-confrontational, and generally apolitical in this non-partisan organization. The Wake county LWV had been founded in 1920, the same year women got the right to vote in national elections. After a rocky period during the late 1930’s and 1940’s, the chapter reconstituted itself in 1950 and has been active ever since.
Then there was the Randolph reunion. I arrived near the beginning of the three-day weekend’s festivities to find a familiar, still beautiful, mostly empty campus. A good student when I’d attended what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in the late 1960’s, I’d nevertheless been anything but a social standout. A foreign language major, I didn’t contribute to campus publications. I wasn’t a horsewoman or an athlete in any sport. I did sing in the glee club, but held no campus leadership positions and rarely attended campus-wide events. I’d felt at graduation that I’d made it through, but would likely not maintain much connection with the school. I wondered how fish-out-of-water I’d feel at a reunion of this institution that had been founded in 1891 exclusively to promote the education of young women, but evolved a lot over its recent existence. About a decade ago, faced with declining enrollment and difficulties attracting highly qualified women to a small, single-sex liberal arts school in the U.S. south, the trustees made a wrenching decision to become a coeducational institution. Alums of the most recent reunion class (those who graduated in 2014) are a rainbow mix of genders and backgrounds, though both the school’s student body and faculty are majority female.
As more and more members of my former class gradually filtered in, I was surprised at how many women I recognized and felt connected with: still-active, still-engaged, still-vibrant septuagenarians whose energy was palpable. This was a tribe I could feel part of! Of course we engaged in some mutual bragging—about further educational achievements, children, life partners, careers, travels, awards, humanitarian endeavors, whatever. Mostly, though, we shared stories based on the values we’d developed during a special time and place together in a supportive environment, values that continue to illuminate our choices and preferences fifty years after graduation.
With so much travel in my recent past and near future, I’m temporarily traveled out. I’ll miss this Sunday afternoon’s Charlotte-area reunion of a part of my biological family that I’ve become better acquainted with since I moved to North Carolina: the Rea clan. I’ll especially miss the possibility of spending time together with three sisters of my dad’s generation, related to me through my grandmother’s baby brother Zeb. As far as I know, none of the Rea sisters are famous, but they’ve each lived long, fruitful lives, handling multiple challenges with quiet grace. I hope to have later chances to reconnect with Virginia, Betsy, and Judy. Now in their 80’s and 90’s, they have maintained a durable sisterhood through thick and thin.
So to sisters everywhere—stay active, stay engaged, stay vibrant. Avoid excluding anyone if you possibly can. And most of all, stay connected!
Uncle John –by Jinny Batterson
It’s been so long ago now that I barely remember
The annual childhood visits to Arlington’s cemetery,
To put flowers on the gravesite where your family
Eventually had you re-interred after you’d fallen
In Germany near the end of World War II.
Once I’d grown older, I asked for pictures of
What you’d looked like in life–you were blond, like
The stern dad whose name is included in yours.
You’d volunteered early for the military, convinced
That the Third Reich posed a grave danger to
Global civilization, though equally so, you thought,
Did rampant nationalism and materialism. In one of the
Pamphlets that your middle sister had printed in your
Honor and memory, you opined, “Would you die for
Your bathtub?” Perhaps somewhat germane, as I sit
In air-conditioned comfort while soldiers in distant deserts
Sweat out yet another year of armed conflict.
You were an inveterate scribbler, like this niece
You never met in life. An eldest son, one of just two
To survive to adulthood, you died in Europe a month
Shy of your thirty-fourth birthday, at about the same
Time your younger brother was among those not killed
When a kamikaze pilot damaged the aircraft carrier
Where he served in the Pacific. Dad came home and
Rarely talked about his service. He sired four children of the
Family’s next generation. In life, the two of you had argued
Passionately about politics, about human nature, but had
Worked and traveled together before war sent you to opposite
Ends of the earth. Dad had the longer physical life, and
He passed along some of your ideals along with the family genes.
You loved the outdoors, spent time on the family farm,
Went camping with friends–an heirloom snapshot shows you
Holding a coffee pot, with an improvised clothes line
Tied to a tent in the background. It’s somewhat fitting
That what physically remains of you lies among many others
On a grassy incline, partially shaded by trees, in a large area
Of “section 12” between Grant and Eisenhower Drives.
This year I won’t make it physically to your gravesite.
My worsening eyesight cannot totally decipher the
Inscription on the virtual image of your headstone
That I now can pull up thanks to a website and the
Volunteers who maintain it. Our country and others
Still engage far too often in “shooting wars,” both foreign
And domestic. Our technology now allows us to engage also
In vicious foreign and domestic cyber wars, equally dangerous.
Please rest well, Uncle John. Know that your survivors
Are doing our best to continue your legacy of service.
The Shapes of Our Scars —by Jinny Batterson
This Mother’s Day brought cards and good wishes from the next generations. Although I once in a while miss the annual homemade breakfasts I used to get years ago, having grown-up children is much less hectic. I’m very glad I’ve had chances to be a biological mom. I’m grateful that the generations after mine are coming into their own, establishing their own patterns of family and civic life.
Mother’s Day observances for me can bring comparisons with other mammalian mothers. Someone has recently started a “dog moms’ day” (celebrating the women who care for their pet dogs) on the Saturday just before (human) Mother’s Day. Lots of internet images these days feature women mothering their pet dogs, or cute dog mothers with their pups, or cat moms with their kittens. What intrigues me most, though, are humpback whale moms.
Many members of my age cohort were introduced to the songs of humpback whales during the 1970’s, when popular singer Judy Collins produced a duet of human and whale songs based partly on humpback whale recordings captured at sea. The whale songs were haunting. The songs of the humpbacks added impetus to a movement to curtail whale hunting internationally. Humpback populations have since rebounded, though still only at about a third of their estimated 1940 levels.
Marine biologists are learning more about the migration patterns and behavior of all whale species, including humpbacks, one of the larger whale species. Mature humpbacks are about the size of a school bus, weighing 30-40 tons. Humpbacks migrate huge distances between feeding and breeding grounds each year. Scientists are not sure all the reasons that the whales vocalize—sometimes to find a mate, perhaps to share news, perhaps at times just for fun. Humpback whale mothers can produce a calf every 2-3 years, and nurse their new calves for up to a year. It takes about a decade for whale calves to reach adult size. A normal humpback lifespan is about 50 years, with ocean pollution, boat collisions, and fishing gear entanglements having replaced whale hunting as main sources of premature death.
Identifying individual humpbacks can involve studying the patterns of light and dark colorations on the underside of their tail fin, or “fluke.” Sometimes these patterns are interrupted by scars, which can also help with identification. Recent studies have indicated that many of the scars on mature whales are the result of accidents or attacks when they were calves—often during their first migration.
In a way, such news is reassuring to this fellow mammal. Regardless of my best attempts, sometimes I may have exposed my human children to harm. Sometimes that harm may even have come from me, passed down from the generations that preceded me. I’m grateful that whatever the scars I carry or have inflicted, both I and my children have survived to adulthood. With wisdom, I may be able to use the shape of my individual scars to help heal myself and others. With wisdom (and perhaps with song), we may be able to heal ourselves and other species from the scars we have inflicted on the planet.
For more about humpbacks, check the internet—one fairly good introduction has been posted by National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/h/humpback-whale/
Seeing with New Eyes —by Jinny Batterson
This was the year when my eye doctor pronounced my cataracts “ripe” and ready for removal. I’d noticed some increasing difficulties judging pavement curbs, especially at night, and a gradual dulling of colors. Worsening eyesight is one of the impediments that often come with aging. I relied on the eye doctor to know the difference between mild cataracts and those challenging my vision enough to merit being taken out. After some additional tests that involved shining bright lights in my eyes while asking me to read an eye chart, I was pronounced “ready” and scheduled for eye measurements, then outpatient surgery in both eyes.
Some of my friends and relatives have required bionic replacement knees, shoulders, hips, wrists or ankles. So far for me, the original appendages have functioned adequately and not pained me unduly. I count myself lucky. However, I depend heavily on eyes that function “well enough” and hadn’t had surgery for a good while. I was nervous.
Doctors, nurses, and technicians did their best to explain my options, then prep me for surgery. They patiently talked me through what would happen and how I would likely react. The strangest thing seemed that, post-surgery, I might no longer require eyeglasses for distance vision. This prospect seemed doubly odd to someone who has worn glasses since childhood, except for a couple of early adult years when I tried out contact lenses to improve my looks. (My contacts adventure ended rather abruptly one night when I forgot to thoroughly wash my hands after cooking with chili peppers.) I vowed that I’d be extra careful in following the prescribed post-op instructions for these new, bionic lenses that would sit within my eyeballs.
Because of some travel plans, it wasn’t practical for me to have both eyes processed in a short period of time. Instead, I spent about three weeks with one eye “post-op” and the other “pre-op.” The optical shop kindly removed the external lens from my glasses for my post-op eye, but coordination between the two eyes between eye operations was off a bit. Now both eyes are new. I’ve started getting accustomed to my changed vision, though I still limit my exposure to bright lights and avoid interstate highways. I don’t drive much after dark.
Once my eyes stabilize, my near vision will likely need assistance from reading glasses. Perhaps reading less of the daily news is at this point a boon. Our society seems caught in frequent cycles of “us vs. them” and “win/lose” games. While temporarily appropriate in athletic contests, such scorekeeping in other aspects of life can too often lead toward “all vs. all” and “lose/lose.”
Each morning when I wake up, I relish my new physical eyes; I try to remind myself to reorient my metaphysical eyes as well.
Coercion –by Jinny Batterson
Labor —by Jinny Batterson
Not to belabor the point,
But for many of us, labor has gotten
Pretty thoroughly detached from bodily work.
The fruits of our labors these days
May often involve spreadsheets rather
Than hand-washed sheets spread in the sun
To dry, or fruitful virtual deals rather
Than fruit freshly picked from actual trees.
Fuels laid down in prior geological
Time substitute for much manual labor these days.
Gas, oil, coal, electricity can help make our lives
Comfortable, if not especially productive or fulfilling.
We yearn for connection, but rarely find it.
We may experience nature at a distance,
Or not at all. Sweat, strain, exertion, groans
Happen at the fitness center, washed away
When we shower and change into “street clothes.”
Physical labor, when done well, has its own inherent dignity.
Might this day, established in the nineteenth century
To honor laborers, remind us in the twenty-first
To take a break from the gym? Instead,
To go outside, to find a patch of earth, however small,
To heft a trowel, hoe, or shovel, then to burrow
Into a bit of the foundational soil that has for
Eons fed both our bodies and our souls.
Different Angels from Montgomery —by Jinny Batterson
Growing up, I wasn’t a huge country music fan. However, like a lot of folks, I developed an infatuation with the John Prine song “Angel from Montgomery” and its signature refrain: “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.” Who/what is the angel? There’s some dispute. One of John’s friends insists it was an angel atop the Montgomery Ward building in Chicago, near where John was raised. Another theory is that “angel that flies” refers to a prison pardon communicated from the office of Alabama’s governor at Montgomery. Such pardons for prisoners were/are much hoped for but seldom granted, especially for those on death row. To my knowledge, Prine himself hasn’t identified the angel.
The song stayed in the back of my mind as I planned a “southern swing” in late winter. I had friends in Atlanta, relatives in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Montgomery, where I’d never before visited, was not that far out of the way.
This initial capital of the Confederacy and nexus of civil rights activism a century later had some museums I wanted to see. Near my downtown Montgomery hotel was a small museum to early country music star Hank Williams, who first rose to fame in Montgomery in the late 1930’s. Though I read the historical marker to his memory and looked at the window displays, this was not one of the museums I came for. Rather, I wanted to spend time learning more about Montgomery’s role during the civil rights era—about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the bus boycott that helped usher in a decade of civil rights activism.
In a downtown Montgomery branch of Troy University, a Rosa Parks exhibit reconstructed the events surrounding Ms. Parks’ 1955 arrest and the ensuing bus boycott, complete with a vintage bus. Having a chance to see the actual venue that had produced her and then the year-long boycott brought home her fortitude and resolve, along with the solidarity and resolve of Montgomery’s African-American community.
I’d made advance reservations for another pair of museums and memorials, recently opened by the Equal Justice Initiative. The Legacy Museum and its companion, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the Lynching Memorial) show the enduring legacy of racial terror that continues to haunt our nation. The Legacy Museum, a block from Hank Williams’ shrine, documents the horrors of the slavery and Jim Crow eras plus some brutal variants that continue to this day. One of the museum’s most graphic exhibits is a set of large jars of soil collected from sites of terror lynchings that occurred from the 1870’s up through 1950, peaking in the 1890’s and early 1900’s.
On a six acre site overlooking Montgomery’s downtown, a companion memorial contains two sets of over 800 steel columns, one for each county in the United States where documented racial terror lynchings took place. One set of columns is shielded by a roof. Viewers of the sloping site are led from an initial area where the columns are at ground level toward a section where they hang suspended, like many of the lynching victims they represent.
Words or photos cannot convey the full impact of experiencing a walk among them. The county where I now live in North Carolina had one lynching memorialized; the county in Maryland where I was raised had two. In all, over 4,000 racial terror lynchings have been documented and verified in 20 states.
A second set of columns lies flat on the ground. Rust-colored, it reminded me of the corrosive myths many of us have told ourselves and each other for years, helping perpetuate race-based fears and hatred, going all the way back to the myth of the “happy darky.” There’s the myth of the predatory black man, with its corresponding myth of helpless womanhood. Especially pernicious and pervasive is the myth of white superiority, abetted by the myth of entirely benign police presence aimed solely at preserving “law and order.”
. The duplicate columns are designed to be brought home to the counties where lynchings occurred, as a way to help acknowledge past injustices and then help heal our enduring racial divides. The columns are way too heavy to fly, but these angels represented in Montgomery need to go home. It’s way past time.
By now, I’ve become an old woman. Not unlike the wife in Prine’s song, I’m named after one of my grandmothers. I may be old, but I can continue to bear witness. Again paraphrasing Prine’s lyrics—to believe in (and work toward) reconciliation is a good way to go.
Taxing our Patience —by Jinny Batterson
(A piece of doggerel for this year’s “tax day.” With slight adjustments in meter, it can be sung to the tune of the final verse of “When You’re Lying Awake (with a Dreadful Headache)” from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera “Iolanthe.”)
When in the course, the R’s chose a dark horse
And the airwaves with hate speech kept humming,
It seemed plausible to me that from sea to sea,
Pretty soon there’d be bad vibes a’coming.
His campaign harkened back to America’s past,
With a hint of nostalgic bravado–
His portly physique and his combover sleek
Could put one in mind of the Mikado.
In debates loud he slashed, his opponents he bashed,
With occasional other-aimed insults.
He could stalk and could preen, dominate every scene
Upstage everyone else to get results.
As November drew near, he switched into high gear,
Jetting to campaign in the heartland:
He would bring back lost jobs, toss out swampland nabobs,
Salve the pride of those unfairly canned.
On Election night pundits discussed the close run: “It
May take ’til morning on this one,”
Then rust belt results tilted red by some thousands–
Electors would make sure the mogul had won.
Well who needs briefing books, we’ll throw out the old crooks,
We’ll install our first staff, most of them will not last,
If “you’re fired” does not work, I can make you resign,
It’s reality TV almost all of the time, and if you get indicted
Defense is your dime, I’ve got meetings with Kim,
You can sink or can swim, it’s the same to me
Long as I’m center of global attention.
Immigrants cause all mess, we must care for them less.
Four-year terms can be long, ditto, ditto this song—
Please God, let them soon both be over!
Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease —by Jinny Batterson
The mostly “white” religious congregation I’m part of in Raleigh, North Carolina has lately become more visibly concerned with reducing racism. Our local intensification started amid a national denominational crisis about discrimination in hiring practices. It increased after a 2017 murder at a Charlottesville, Virginia “unite the right” rally. Our renewed efforts to grapple with racism (and other related isms) is a positive step. During 2018-2019, we’ve slightly adapted the workshop curriculum “Living the Pledge” and held multiple sessions for congregational leaders and members. Over the course of these workshops, those of us privileged to be “white” have gotten a more complete understanding of our unfair advantages, based on centuries of overt chattel slavery and then at least another century’s add-on of explicit and implicit discrimination against “non-whites.” During a particularly intense role play, it dawned on me how unlikely it would be for me to fully shed my “whiteness.” Despite my best efforts, my earlier conditioning, sometimes unconscious, could continue to trip me up sometimes. Racism, I came to believe, was not an acute condition that could be cured with a good dose of anti-racism training. Rather it was a chronic spiritual illness requiring lifetimes of work to reduce and eventually eliminate its damage.
In addition to the workshop materials, I studied on my own—a frequent recourse among highly formally educated Unitarian-Universalists. By the time I tiptoed into it, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me had spent over a year and a half on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. His epistolary account of growing up as a “black” male in Baltimore reminded me of 1950’s childhood outings to eat and shop in what was then predominantly “white” West Baltimore, before fear-based real estate block-busting changed the complexion and economic resources of the neighborhood. I immersed myself in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, getting a “black” woman’s perspective on similar changes in the southside Chicago neighborhood that helped form her. I read a confessional analysis of the holdovers of “slaveholder religion” by “white” North Carolina-based pastor Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In his 2018 book, Reconstructing the Gospel, Wilson-Hartgrove explains how a skewed interpretation of the Christian gospels can continue to favor “whiteness.”
During an early spring 2019 trip, I had a chance to visit the museum and monument in Montgomery, Alabama, created by the Equal Justice Initiative to dramatize the connecting threads of racial violence through slavery and the period of terror-based lynchings to current mass incarceration. Recently I viewed the film The Best of Enemies, chronicling a cross-racial friendship forged during a two-week period of skillfully facilitated community discussions and soul-searching about school integration in neighboring Durham, North Carolina in 1971.
Once we’ve studied, though, what do we do differently from what has come before? How do we learn to treat each person as an individual with “inherent worth and dignity,” as stated in our denomination’s basic documents? How do we work toward dismantling institutional racism? How do us “whites” get beyond “white guilt” to become more effective in the struggle? A clue came from a “white” woman activist who’s become a late-life hero of mine, “subversive Southerner” Anne Braden. In an interview at her namesake education center in Louisville, Kentucky when she was in her late 70’s, Braden was clear and succinct:
“I don’t think guilt is a productive emotion. I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt. Now there’s plenty for white people to feel guilty about but they’ll sit around and they’ll feel guilty then they’ll go hear a real militant black speaker beat them over the head for an hour and go home and think they’ve done something and not do anything for a year. I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think what everybody white that I know has gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in. The meaning of life is in that struggle, that human beings have always been able to envision something better.”
Racism is a chronic spiritual waste. Part of the work of religious community is to harness the spirit to work persistently to reduce such waste, helping build the beloved community.