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!
Selective Memory and Finishing the Work We Are In —by Jinny Batterson
I can remember parts of events that happened when I was much younger. On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was a Maryland high school student. I remember hearing our school principal start an announcement over the school intercom that day at an unusual time for announcements. I remember coming down the stairwell between the two floors of our building along with many other students changing classes.
I don’t remember whether the announcement I heard while going downstairs was the first—that President Kennedy had been shot—or the second—that he had shortly afterward been pronounced dead at a Dallas hospital. I don’t remember whether school that day was dismissed early or whether school was canceled the following Monday for his funeral. I don’t remember much about that year’s Thanksgiving the following Thursday.
Earlier in 1963, there had been a tense standoff between the nuclear-armed U.S.A. under Kennedy’s leadership, and the nuclear-armed U.S.S.R. under Nikita Khrushchev about the positioning of nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba, then led by Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro. I don’t remember whether my dad built a nuclear fallout shelter in our front yard before or after Kennedy was shot.
Parts of our education when I was a student involved memorizing famous poems and speeches. I can recite most of a short Abraham Lincoln speech from a century earlier, first spoken in November, 1863 at a dedication ceremony for a military cemetery at the site of one of the U.S. Civil War’s deadliest battles:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are …testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.…The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. …It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
In the tragic days after Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, his Gettysburg speech was nearly forgotten. Later, the contents of the speech took on more importance. When the current Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C. in 1922, the Gettysburg Address was inscribed on one of the monument’s inside walls.
We are now experiencing another test of the viability of our democratic institutions. Each of us brings different memories to an ongoing impeachment inquiry. Witnesses and questioners interpret incidents differently, partly based on their training and point of view. Our current President ran for office touting the belief that our nation could return to a time when the U.S. was preeminent in global affairs. As an astute businessman, he could “fix things.” Some seem to think his position grants him nearly unlimited license to promote his own interests. Attempts to remove him from office are “character assassination.” Others less charitable to the President point out that our political system is based on checks and balances designed to restrict any one person or political entity from rigging the system to his own benefit, from “fixing things.”
Absent from the immediate debates and questioning are considerations of the impacts of global over-dependence on fossil fuels to human and planetary health. Scientists tell us that both the United States of America and the rest of the world’s nations have only a decade or so to drastically curb our output of the climate-warming gasses produced by burning fossil fuels if we are to maintain a planet capable of supporting human life as we know it.
On another wall of the Lincoln Memorial is his second inaugural, delivered in March, 1865, just over a month before his assassination. We might be wise to remember its conclusion:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle… to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Regardless of the outcome of our immediate political crises, climate change requires all of us to strive on, using whatever tools of intellect, wealth, compassion, and ingenuity are at our disposal, to finish the work we are in.
Forcing Poinsettias —by Jinny Batterson
About ten months ago, a neighbor bequeathed to me three post-season poinsettias, two red and one pink. She said she was not good with plants. She thought I might be able to nurse them through the rest of the cold weather while enjoying their still-vibrant colors. Our condo has a set of sunny front windows; they became the plants’ late winter home. Once spring’s last frost had passed, all three plants went into the ground out front. The two previously red ones thrived, the pink one fell prey to a combination of poor soil and digging by our ever-busy squirrels.
As summer progressed, the plants’ remaining red leaves fell off. By August, we had two shrub-sized green plants preening happily among the other annuals and perennials. Though September’s temperatures stayed hot, it seemed a good idea as the days shortened toward autumn to transfer the poinsettias into indoor pots before cold weather and even shorter days. I trimmed back the most luxuriant growth, put some slow-release fertilizer into the pots along with the semi-shorn poinsettias, and crossed my fingers that the plants would survive yet another change of home. I’d created tall and narrow specimens, rather than the short and wide versions seen in holiday-prepped store poinsettias, but our plants did not die.
OK, I thought, how about the next step? Can I get them to repeat the brilliant reds of the previous year? According to an internet subpage for Lowe’s home improvement (https://www.lowes.com › buying-guide › selecting-caring-poinsettia), for Christmas-blooming poinsettias, you need to start in early October and continue for at least 40 days, providing between 13 and 16 hours of complete darkness each 24 hours, alternating with remaining hours in light.
Our regimen of under-lawn-bags-in-the-basement darkness did not start until mid-October, and at first nothing happened. The only change seemed to be the added daily chore of bringing the plants up into the light after breakfast, and shrouding them back in basement darkness after supper. One or two days we forgot. Would this invalidate the overall effort? I wondered.
In early November, the first hints of redness began to appear in some tiny shoots at the tops of the plants. Now, as Thanksgiving approaches, we have a few small red leaves, a few others where the summer’s green seems to be fading, revealing redness underneath, a little like deciduous trees aflame in the fall. I doubt the eventual effect will be as striking as that of a greenhouse-forced glory from a local garden store.
Still, the experiment has been worth the effort for me. Whatever its other outcomes, it has reinforced my knowledge that many living things, including humans, respond to changes in intervals of light and dark. Somewhat less sunny moods during the months of short days can be natural; to partially counter the winter blahs, it’s important to get outdoors into natural light, even in cold weather. Best of all, I’ve relearned that beauty comes in all sizes and shapes—tall and narrow and short and wide. Perhaps the poinsettias are forcing me.
Choosing Your Starfish —by Jinny Batterson
One of the years when I taught English in China, my students were fascinated by a story about an old man, a young boy, and a beach filled with stranded starfish. Many variants of the story have appeared. The one my students were most familiar with went something like this:
One morning after a storm, an older man went out for his customary walk along a gently curving stretch of beach. The weather had cleared. As he looked ahead, the man could see in the distance a small figure, also walking along, sometimes bending down, then throwing something into the waves. As the older man got closer, he saw that the other person was a young boy, perhaps twelve years old. The stretch of beach nearest them was littered with stranded starfish. Once in a while, the boy leaned over, picked up a starfish, and tossed it back into the sea.
“You’ll never succeed in making a difference for every living starfish,” the old man cautioned. “There are too many of them, and they can’t live very long on the beach.”
“That’s not the point,” replied the boy as he tossed another starfish back into the waves. “I made a difference for that one.”
I didn’t remember having heard the story before. When I recently checked online for the story’s origin, I found it had appeared in slightly different form in 1969 as part of an essay titled “Star Thrower” by philosopher Loren Eiseley. A number of charitable organizations have since taken up the image of a rescued starfish as part of their name or marketing—groups for ex-offenders, for poverty-stricken children, for survivors of childhood abuse, for injured veterans, and so on. A variation of the story’s theme has been made into a children’s film, “Sara and the Starfish.”
The fable is both challenging and reassuring to me in these unsettled times. As someone with a tendency to obsess about all the actual and potential “starfish” I may encounter, I find the story helps me maintain or regain perspective. Of course I can never save all possible starfish. It’s important, though, that I pay attention to the starfish who get stranded on “my” beach with problems that match my resources and the solution skills I’ve developed.
Who/what is your starfish?
Building Lop-Sided Bridges —by Jinny Batterson
About this time of year in 1997, I got a nasty shock. I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A set of cells had gone malignant and might soon invade the rest of my body. Several months earlier, I’d had my annual mammogram and was told it was normal. So at first, I wrote off the lump that showed up around Hallowe’en as just another annoying symptom of menopause. I was a healthy, middle-aged white woman. I ate well, exercised regularly, had gotten all my prescribed screenings. I made a comfortable living as a consultant, had two college-age sons, a husband who loved me, and no family history of breast cancer. The lump would go away on its own. It didn’t. Further tests showed an aggressive tumor. By early December, I’d had a modified radical mastectomy without reconstruction. I was pretty shaky both physically and mentally.
As I began to heal, I tried to use my experiences as a teaching tool. Our Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Richmond, Virginia had long engaged in efforts to help promote racial healing. Each year about the time of the MLK holiday, we had a special service with a racial justice theme. This particular year, I’d been working for several months before my diagnosis on the planning committee for the service. As I began to regain strength after surgery, I asked if I could do a short talk about my “lop-sidedness,” using my body as a metaphor for the way our entire society was lop-sided and hampered by our history of individual prejudice and systemic racism. We all needed healing. I composed and rehearsed my talk. By early January I was confident that I’d have the physical stamina and the psychological strength to deliver a 10-minute talk, even with the prospect of six months of chemotherapy looming.
Then I went to choir rehearsal. Our young choir director wanted to use spirituals to accompany the service. He’d chosen “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, goin’ home to live with God…” as the meditation hymn. I flinched. Jamie was a wonderful musician, but I really didn’t want to identify with that particular song at that particular time in my life. Privately, I asked if we could substitute something more upbeat. I got a reprieve. We wound up singing “I’m so busy servin’ my Master, ain’t got time to die…” Both the congregation and I survived to continue our work.
A decade later, I learned that my favorite college roommate had developed breast cancer. Beth had grown up near Richmond, graduated from our small liberal arts school, then gotten an advanced degree in library science. She’d moved to different parts of the country. She spent much of her career administering college libraries—first in Ohio, then South Dakota, then Florida. We kept up via holiday cards and occasional phone calls. In her 50’s, Beth had changed focus slightly and taken a post as director of a set of public libraries in an economically depressed part of lowland South Carolina. Beth had been in her new job only a year or so when the cancer hit. Her family and friends rallied to her support. Once her most intensive treatments were over, I went down for a weekend visit. We traded survivor stories. When she passed the five year mark without a recurrence, I sent hearty congratulations. Then, a couple of years later, a non-cancerous illness destroyed her kidneys and took her life with little warning. That April, I drove south through timber plantations, palmetto swamps, and railroad cuts festooned with blooming wisteria vines to get to South Carolina for Beth’s memorial service. I didn’t know much about her town, but suspected it would be as highly segregated racially as much of the South I’d previously been exposed to.
The small Methodist church was nearly full. Some of the mourners were family members I recognized, but I was surprised to see half a dozen older black women among the mostly white worshippers. I guessed at first that perhaps the women were maintenance workers at some of the libraries Beth supervised, then chided myself for stereotyping. At the reception after the service, I had a chance to talk with one of the women.
“How did you know Beth?” I asked.
“We were part of a local support group called ‘Bosom Buddies’,” the woman explained, pointing to the discrete pink lapel pin she wore.
I never learned much about the group. Beth may have had a hand in creating this cross-racial sisters-beneath-the-skin effort in the area she’d made her home. Whatever her role, she’d reached out across any racial divide, creating enough of a bond so that six women had taken the time to attend her memorial service.
Our country remains in need of healing. Pundits of many political leanings expound on all the ways we are polarized— economically, racially, politically, spiritually. Income disparities persist; wealth gaps have gotten worse. Gun violence takes too many lives; “stop and frisk” procedures and mass incarceration further divide us. Health outcomes vary tremendously, based partly on income and ethnicity. We’re still lop-sided. We all need healing. Perhaps those of us who are physically lop-sided can continue to build lop-sided bridges.
Surviving the “Oiligopalypse” —by Jinny Batterson
Oiligopalypse—noun: slow-moving global destruction due to the concentrated political and economic power of a small group of fossil fuel interests.
As Hallowe’en approaches, it seems appropriate to spend time thinking about scary things. Looking around, the oiligopalypse is the scariest thing out there: An oligarchy of oil interests steering us into a slow-motion apocalypse of unimaginable proportions and duration. Even the horrific imagery in the Biblical book of Revelation may not exceed the fires, floods, and wholesale unraveling of ecological and social fabric that we are just beginning to experience.
The oiligopalypse has been many years in the making. The first hints of possible negative impacts on earth’s climate from over-reliance on fossil fuel combustion came over a century ago, during the “Gilded Age” of wealthy industrialists in the late 19th century. In more recent times, concerns focused instead on possible fossil fuel shortages, after a consortium of oil-exporting countries began to restrict supply and to demand higher prices for their crude oil. A difficult period of adjustment led to more efficient use of fuels, innovative ways (like fracking) of extracting more fuel from existing deposits, and greater use of previously discarded “by-products” such as natural gas and methane.
In the early 1990’s, we experienced both the first Gulf War, to force Iraqi troops out of Kuwait’s oil fields, and a highly publicized global attempt to mitigate human climate impact via the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. Retreating Iraqi troops set fire to hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells and damaged dozens more, creating a plume of smoke and ash visible from space and fusing about 5% of Kuwait’s surface area into impenetrable “tarcrete.” During the Earth Summit, a binding agreement on biological diversity was signed, along with an initial framework convention on confronting climate change.
Since then, we’re made halting attempts to address climate change and to rein in our use of fossil fuels, both individually and collectively. Globally, efforts have often foundered on the differences between already-industrialized economies and those still in the process of becoming more fully industrial. Many “developing” nations have bridled at what they view as strictures from North Americans and Europeans to “do as we say, not as we did” without providing needed development assistance to ease global transitions away from fossil fuels.
Greenhouse gas levels, in the meantime, have reached dangerous heights. Extreme weather events such as prolonged droughts, heat waves, wildfires, floods, and monster storms have been decisively linked to human-induced climate change. Earth’s oceans are warming, sea levels are rising, our warming atmosphere has greater moisture-holding capacity, resulting in more intense rain events. Security officials in many parts of the globe refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier,” increasing the likelihoods of mass starvation, uncontrollable migration, and armed conflict.
It’s sensible to be scared of an oiligopalypse. What can we humans do to reduce our chances of drowning, burning, dying of hunger or thirst, or of wheezing our way into oblivion? Wringing our hands and/or counting just on improved technology won’t cut it. We’ll need to exhibit more of the human ingenuity that has gotten our species through previous crises, putting our minds, hearts, and material resources into adapting to the changing climate. A few suggestions:
—Get to know your geographical neighbors; set up mutual help networks. When there’s an extreme weather event, far-flung Facebook friends will be of minimal help. You’ll need to give and receive assistance first from those who live nearest you.
—Simplify your lifestyle and tool set. Find less fuel-intensive ways to get around and to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Walk, bike, use public transportation, optimize your route for a greater proportion of your errands; grow a little of your own food; shop local farmers’ markets and second hand shops; downsize or share living space.
—Use improved communication channels such as the internet and cell phones to get reliable information about lifestyle alternatives, to broaden your network of climate-savvy friends and acquaintances, and to lobby your elected officials at all levels for better climate stewardship.
—Plant trees that will by one future Hallowe’en have grown large enough so someone’s grandchildren can crouch behind them, then jump out with fake menace shouting “boo!”
The oiligopalypse, a real menace, is coming. Let’s get ready.
The 5 p.m. Bluebird Bath —by Jinny Batterson
If I were a more gifted, more patient photographer, I might have a better picture to illustrate this short post. As it is, you will need to use your imagination a little to fill in the birds.
Early October here in central North Carolina was unseasonably warm. As longtime backyard bird watchers, we’ve gradually added hanging feeders of various types to the edges of our back deck. We keep most of the feeders filled year-round. We are lucky to have a wooded area just behind our lot, providing some protection from the hawks, owls, and cats that regularly patrol our area. A few years ago, I found a good quality plastic birdbath that I could attach to our back deck railing, about twenty feet above the ground. As the thermometer climbed into the high 90’s for several days in a row, I made sure to keep the bath filled with cool water, checking it several times a day. During the middle of the day, various birds and squirrels traipsed across the railing to get a drink, but the crowds diminished as the day waned.
Perhaps my daylong vigilance was noticed, though. At any rate, several times during our “Hottober” week, about the same time in late afternoon, a trio of bluebirds paid us a visit. I got a thrill watching them take turns bathing and drinking in the coolish water. While one fluffed his/her feathers and splashed in the center of the bath, another sipped at its edge, while a third waited for a dip or a drink. The male bird had plumage that looked almost iridescent against the green plastic of the bath’s base.
Now it’s finally turned cooler. Though the bluebirds still visit our suet feeders, I haven’t seen their bathing beauty behavior in a while. I’m not sure if they will winter here—I have a low-tech heating element (a clay bread warmer) to keep the birdbath relatively ice-free. We’re also conscientious about keeping our feeders filled when cold weather makes other food scarcer. I have little idea where the bluebirds nest, or what other neighborhood smorgasbords they frequent.
Per basic internet information about Eastern bluebirds (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_bluebird), the species who visits us is widespread and not currently endangered, in contrast with many other songbirds whose numbers are declining. Whether or not bluebirds migrate further south for the winter depends mostly on the availability of food sources. It’s more than worth the cost of some suet to me to be able to glimpse the beauty of these colorful if common birds.
Elders, Natural Debt, Resilience… —by Jinny Batterson
Substantial numbers of my cohort of aging “leading edge boomers” have led charmed lives up to now. Medical advances have permitted us to live longer, with fewer health problems than our forebears’ generations. Technical advances and social policies have helped bring increased economic prosperity to those of us at upper income levels, especially those with inherited wealth and/or advanced formal educations. Yet lots of us are uneasy or depressed. What went wrong?
As we came of age in the 1960’s, ecologists continued issuing warnings about the impacts of unbridled “growth” on the natural environments that underly all living beings, including humans. Partly due to youthful protests, governments in some economically advanced countries began passing laws to curb or criminalize the most visible environmental abuses. Cleanup funds were established. Our skies became clearer, our rivers no longer stank. Also partly due to youthful protests, American involvement in a costly war in Vietnam came to an official end. We were told there was a “peace dividend” and it was safe to start raising families. We gradually left the streets for the suburbs.
Outsourcing and automation removed more and more routine, grimy or dangerous jobs to places most of us did not see. Occasional spot disasters like the Bhopal chemical release in India in 1984, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in what was then the USSR in 1986, Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana/Mississippi in 2005, or the Fukushima tsunami/power plant disaster in Japan in 2011 briefly caught our notice, but mostly we did not pay attention. Such difficulties would likely never touch us, safely ensconced in our cushy American suburban cocoons.
Our cocoons are getting pretty toasty, abetted by record heat waves, wildfires, and tropical storms. The statistics are telling: In 2018, the U.S. suffered fourteen weather-related billion-plus dollar disasters. Bills for hurricanes Florence and Michael, already over $49 billion, are still coming in. Out west, a record-breaking wildfire season did more than $24 billion worth of damage. Here in North Carolina, I lived through my first 100 degree October day, after a record-setting dry, hot September generated a new weather label: “flash drought.”
Fiscal conservatives have long warned of the dangers of burgeoning public debt—the U.S. national debt recently topped 22 trillion dollars, or about $56,000 for every American. A friend and former colleague raises concerns about the hidden or belatedly recorded costs of “technical debt” (see http://techdebtpolicy.com) such as recovery from previous over-use of asbestos, whose fire-resistant properties made it desirable as an insulator before its human health impacts were fully understood. I’m most concerned about “natural debt,” a term gradually gaining currency for our drawing down of natural resources and our using our planet as a dumping ground, as in a set of posts by an India-based group, downtoearth.org.in.
It’s not too hard to see why natural debt is a growing concern, one that has many of us elders wakeful on October nights when the air conditioning is still on. Links likely exist between natural debt and increasing instances of human protest and conflict across all parts of the political spectrum and all regions of the globe.
People my age are closer to the ends of our lives than its beginnings. Our worst nightmares reflect the distress we’ve caused other humans and the natural world we depend on. If our imaginings goad us toward useful action rather than just handwringing, this is not necessarily a bad thing. By now, many of us have bounced back individually from financial, health, and/or family challenges. Beyond individual or family, though, we need to use the rest of our physical lives to help build more species-wide resilience. If we are to claim any prerogatives as an “intelligent species,” we’ll need to get both our individual and collective acts more thoroughly together. A compendium from our youth, The Last Whole Earth Catalog, said it on a back cover, showing a NASA photo of Earth taken from space: “We can’t put it together. It is together.” Together with or without humans, our choice.
The PRC at 70 —by Jinny Batterson
She’s an impressive dowager,
A real rags to riches story–
Rising from the ashes of
A brutal civil war,
After a century of quasi-colonial
Oppression, she turned inward
And recreated herself.
A few convulsions temporarily
Sidelined her progress,
But now she stands proud–
The world’s greatest factory floor,
Flooding our shelves with goods
We couldn’t have imagined
A scant generation ago.
Of course she suffers from arthritis—
Twinges in her toes.
At her other extremity,
A bowl shaped desert
That refuses to be reeducated.
No pigeons or kites flock or weave
Above the scrubbed multitudes
As tanks again roll down Chang An
Avenue. Onlookers wave
May she be wise and gracious
In old age. May her poets
Sleep securely in well-thatched
Cottages. Happy Birthday!