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!
A Protest Lullaby Project —by Jinny Batterson
My hope is that many of you can remember a time in your childhood when your mother or a special adult sang you a soothing lullaby. One of my favorites is “All Through the Night,” originally a Welsh song. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzFqirIGVB4)
The past couple of months, especially the past couple of weeks, have been unsettling for me. As I write, the annual June anniversary of the use of repressive force in China in 1989 has nearly arrived. Many of us living in the United States of America are witnessing the use of repressive force on our own streets. In the wake of another senseless murder of an unarmed black man, demonstrations have begun and persisted in many American cities.
At the same time, a global viral pandemic has hit our country hard, uncovering many inequities and rifts that those of us in comfortable circumstances have tried for too long to cover over. Concerns over the spread of the virus have dampened the public activism of many older Americans, those of us most vulnerable to serious illness or death from covid-19.
Many who are wiser than me have counseled prayer. Spending time on our knees is one good way to acknowledge both our pain and our solidarity. Another may be songs, both energetic and uplifting, and, at the close of the day, soothing.
My hope is that younger people in areas under curfew will continue peaceful in-person protests, wearing face coverings and observing as much social distancing as possible. Airing long-festering grievances and concerns, both in public protests and in virtual spaces, is crucial to beginning to address them.
I suggest that we add to other protest rituals, a few minutes before curfews take effect, a lullaby. Let’s sing to each other, to ourselves, to our President and political leaders of all persuasions. Let’s choose whatever language and idiom most suits. Let’s mouth the words, silently or aloud. If we are not under curfew, let’s practice a lullaby a few minutes before sunset.
Singing and praying to and for each other will not by themselves solve our problems. Nothing but sustained, concerted actions at many levels will. But a lullaby can offer a brief respite, perhaps open a greater possibility for healing our too-fractured world.
Hush, my worldmates, peace attend thee, all through the night…
The Flowers Have Not (Yet) Gone —by Jinny Batterson
It’s been a rough week to be an American. The death toll in the United States from the covid-19 pandemic crossed the 100,000 mark, while multiple U.S. cities experienced repeated, sometimes violent demonstrations in the wake of Monday’s death of yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Our economy has sputtered to a halt. Partly as a result of virus-related lockdowns, nearly a quarter of the U.S. labor force is unemployed. Our president sporadically spreads hatred and gibberish through his favored media platform, becoming so blatant in his misrepresentations and lies that Twitter has recently put “fact check” warnings on some of his posts.
As various U.S. states attempt to restart their economies in the midst of a highly contagious novel corona virus with no known treatment or vaccine, cases have started to spike again in multiple hot spots. No one seems to know a good solution to the multiple crises besetting us.
I sometimes get a “deja vu” feeling about our current problems and unrest, as someone who in 1968 was a young adult with much idealism and little experience. Then, an escalating and increasingly stalemated war in Vietnam was killing a disproportionate number of young black American men. Most American men between the ages of 19 and 26 (though less so the wealthiest or best connected) were susceptible to being conscripted into the military. In early April, Martin Luther King, Jr., an outstanding proponent of non-violent civil disobedience and a leader in the fight for legal equality for African-Americans, had been assassinated by a sniper while helping organize a peaceful protest for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. In the wake of his death, over a hundred American cities had erupted in protests that often turned violent and destructive.
Conditions in many U.S. cities in 1968 were unequal, with housing projects and decaying urban neighborhoods receiving little in the way of substantive government assistance, while billions were being spent to advance presumed U.S. political interests overseas. Other government programs either intentionally or collaterally favored “white flight” to the suburbs, which were largely off limits to non-whites. Sound vaguely familiar?
Many collegians of the 1960’s had become enamored of a folk song revival, one of its signature songs being “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” penned by Pete Seeger in 1955. Joe Hickerson had later added more verses, turning the song into a circular questioning of the premise of warfare. The folk/rock trio of Peter, Paul and Mary popularized the expanded version, which remains a touchstone for many of us who lived through that era. (You can view their 25th anniversary rendering of the song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgXNVA9ngx8.)
In 2020, I’m somewhat creaky in the knees and a bit too virus-averse to participate in large gatherings, so I admire from a distance the courage and forbearance of many of the protesters (and many of the police officers who work to deescalate tensions, both short-term and longer-term). Meanwhile, I continue to send emails and postal letters to elected officials at all levels. I support voter registration and voting rights initiatives. I sew and give away protective face masks. I tend gardens. I plant flowers. I want to remind myself and others that the flowers have not yet gone.
Wandering in the Wilderness of Covid-19 —by Jinny Batterson
When as a child I read Bible stories about the forty years the Hebrews spent wandering in the wilderness after they fled Egypt and before they entered the promised land, I could partly identify, as someone who easily becomes lost. However, even as a child, I thought forty years seemed a very long time. I guess they probably didn’t have an app back then for directions on their cell phones, but couldn’t they ask someone for directions? Didn’t anybody have a map?
As we humans try to navigate our way through the covid-19 pandemic, I’ve become more appreciative of the Hebrews’ difficulties. It wasn’t just physical distance the Hebrews needed to traverse. Turns out, the space between one “normal” and the next was just as much psychological as physical. The Biblical Book of Numbers tells of the challenges of life in the wilderness. At first, some Hebrews wanted to return to Egypt. There, though enslaved, they at least had plenty of varied food: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers… and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Revised Standard Version, Chapter 11, verses 5-6).
As they neared what they expected to be the promised land, overall leader Moses sent twelve tribal chieftains to assess the area: “Go up into the Negeb yonder, and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak … and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad… Be of good courage, and bring some of the fruit of the land.” (Chapter 13, verses 17-20). The majority report, ten of the twelve, recommended giving up—the people already in the promised land were too strong. This majority even discounted the land’s good points, saying, in essence, that it was not worth fighting for. A minority of two believed the land was indeed worth trying to possess. They thought the challenges were not insurmountable, given spiritual assistance. It took an entire generation, plus lots of disease and death, before the rest of the Hebrews were persuaded.
Another example, from the medical field, is closer to modern America in distance and time. It concerns the spread of the use of antiseptics to prevent post-surgical infections. In the nineteenth century, surgical advances made more complex operations possible, but deaths following surgery soared, sometimes taking half of all patients. One British professor of medicine then observed: “A man laid on the operating table in one or our surgical hospitals is exposed to more chance of death than was the English soldier on the field of Waterloo.”
British surgeon Joseph Lister in 1865 read the results of experiments by French scientist Louis Pasteur, who connected microscopic bacteria with fermentation in foods and wine. Lister wondered whether what caused fermentation in food might also cause infections in wounds. In the late 1860’s, he began experimenting with different procedures and chemicals to reduce the chances of infection. He published the results of his cases in medical journals. Over time, he refined his approaches. Still, it took nearly a generation before antiseptic practices were widely used in hospital surgery wards.
The wilderness of covid-19 response is disconcerting. Recommendations of currently available best practices can be confusing. As my home state of North Carolina begins the second phase of cautiously reopening its economy, the NC Department of Health and Human Services advises that I’ll still be “safer at home,” but that I’ll have an expanded range of businesses and non-profit groups I may visit. When getting my hair cut at a reduced-occupancy salon or dining in a reduced-occupancy restaurant, I’m advised to “wear, wait, wash”—wear a face covering (except, presumably, while eating), wait at least six feet from other customers, and wash my hands frequently (https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/materials-resources/know-your-ws-wear-wait-wash).
My guess is that it will be a good while before we’ll reach a post-covid “normal,” though I hope it will take less than forty years. Those of us who survive this pandemic will mourn our losses. In hindsight, we’ll realize that some preventive measures we tried were more effective than others. Some people will remain unenthusiastic about the longer-term changes we will need to make to reduce the threat of future pandemics.
Still, we may take heart from the experiences of those venturing toward a promised land or safer surgery. The wilderness, however disorienting or longlasting, is neither uniform nor useless. It provides the venue and the time to develop and practice new skills we need. We cannot go back; with good guidance and courage, we can go forward. Please stay as safe and sane as possible, all, while we venture toward our post-covid world!
Efficiency and Resilience—Mutually Exclusive? —by Jinny Batterson
The stay-at-home phase of the covid-19 pandemic has given me more time to wonder about human futures, along with ready access to the internet and a husband who’s keen to curate podcasts and videos he thinks I would benefit from hearing and seeing. Last week, he sat me down to watch an hour-long talk and Q&A featuring Dan Ariely, a working-from-home internationally acclaimed psychology professor at nearby Duke University. Ariely contrasted our tendencies toward efficiency and resilience. (https://today.duke.edu/2020/04/using-social-science-aid-fight-against-covid-19). In a shorter interview printed in an India-based magazine, Ariely explained:
“This virus demonstrated that we are ill-prepared for a catastrophe … hospitals are equipped to deal with the standard inflow and outflow. Almost all normal hospitals don’t have extra capacity. Our economic systems are basically designed to work efficiently, as efficiently as possible. But they are not designed for a day of emergency. Very few governments would say let’s put money aside for a rainy day. There are very few companies that do it.” (https://openthemagazine.com/features/pandemic-related-behavioural-changes-wont-last-long-dan-ariely/)
The notion that we humans too often opt for efficiency over resilience, emphasizing short term gain rather than long term viability, has been around nearly as long as humans have thought and written. It gains traction during times of chaos or rapid change. Books exploring two variations of this idea came out when I was a young adult beginning a career in the rapidly expanding, then relatively new field of computer-mediated commercial data processing. One was Alvin Toffler’s 1970 treatise Future Shock, which theorized that the increasingly rapid pace of change was disorienting to humans being required to adapt on many levels in a short time period. The other, The Limits to Growth, was a 1972 volume co-authored by Donella Meadows, an outgrowth of an early computer modeling exercise to study interlocking factors that might limit the future viability of human societies on planet earth: population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation.
My attempts to sidestep the shock and stay within the limits have so far been partially successful: I’ve been able to create a wide network of family, friends, and colleagues who’ve helped buffer the impact of multiple life changes by sharing support and humor; partly out of choice and partly through necessity, I’ve been more limited than many in reproduction, food habits, resource use, material output, and pollution generation. However, these earlier habits have not helped much to inform my response to the novel corona virus. So I wondered, what might Toffler and Meadows have to say about our current dilemmas?
Both Toffler and Meadows have died. Both left change-studying institutions as parts of their legacy. Toffler Associates (https://www.tofflerassociates.com) presents itself as a “future focused strategic advisory firm.” Meadows co-founded a predecessor to the non-profit Academy for Systems Change (https://www.academyforchange.org), whose mission is “to advance the field of awareness-based systemic change in order to accelerate ecological, social, and economic well-being,” a tall order in these uncertain times. I’d encourage those of you with time and internet access to explore Ariely’s insights, along with both these groups’ online presence.
In the Academy’s archives is an article written by Meadows in the late 1990’s, still somewhat applicable: “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” (http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/) In her article, Meadows argues that many of the interventions we espouse to “fix” a system are either immaterial or counterproductive. Midway through her exposition of twelve increasingly influential leverage points are “negative feedback loops”:
“Nature evolves them and humans invent them as controls to keep important system states within safe bounds. A thermostat loop is the classic example. Its purpose is to keep the system state called ‘room temperature’ fairly constant at a desired level. … A complex system usually has numerous negative feedback loops it can bring into play, so it can self-correct. … One of the big mistakes we make is to strip away these ‘emergency’ response mechanisms because they aren’t often used and they appear to be costly.”
Part of our flat-footedness in responding to a novel corona virus has been the creakiness or absence of emergency human health response mechanisms on a global scale. It’s my hope that we may muddle through this crisis without catastrophic human damage, but with enough impact to prod us toward becoming more resilient, both in our personal choices and in our institutions.
The “Club of Rome,” which underwrote the study on which The Limits to Growth is based, still exists. It still provides cautions about its perceptions of humans’ misappropriations of global resources. But its pronouncements are not entirely doomsday. It continues to embrace, too, the hopefulness of Limits’ conclusion:
The book contains a message of hope, as well: Man can create a society in which he can live indefinitely on earth if he imposes limits on himself and his production of material goods to achieve a state of global equilibrium with population and production in carefully selected balance.
The Veggie Bacon-Cheeseburger —by Jinny Batterson
Our family celebrations have nearly always involved food. Back in the days when extended family dinners with more than ten members were permissible, we’d gather for most major holidays around an abundantly filled dining table.
Over time, food sensitivities for the older generation have increased; our consumption of sugar-laden or fat-laden choices has become more limited. Some in all generations have long-standing food allergies, which need to be factored in when cooking for the entire group. We span a broader range of ethnic cooking preferences than our parents’ generation ever thought of. Some in the generation now entering middle age stick pretty close to the “meat and potatoes” regimen of their childhoods, while others have decided to become vegetarian. They exhort the rest of us to follow their example.
Numerous studies point to a mainly plant-based diet as healthier both for individuals and for the environment. Plants generally have less cholesterol and other not-good-for-you’s. They require fewer inputs per usable calorie than any sort of meat. They do not require lots of land. Plants do not get confined in tightly spaced feeding pens like the less-humane livestock practices.
Before covid-19 appeared on the scene, I’d begun experiments with meat substitutes and with more veggie-friendly meals.
Of course, the current virus pandemic has temporarily upended our food system, along with diminishing the chances for big family gatherings. For the near term, we’ll continue to eat most of our meals at home in our nuclear families. No weekly restaurant explorations. Less frequent take-out meals, even, as some of our favorite area small restaurants close. Those of us still lucky enough to have incomes continue to have broader choices in our shopping and eating habits. The best choices we can make often involve shopping carefully at small local groceries and farmers’ markets to help them stay in business, plus contributing to local food banks and emergency food supply efforts.
For family meals, I’ve tried to continue a more-vegetarian pattern. However, I have yet to find a burger substitute that is quite as satisfying as a “real” meaty burger. When I recently looked into the fridge for inspiration for supper, I pulled out a couple patties of a not-yet-taste-tested brand of veggie burger.
“They’d taste much better with some bacon on top,” my husband interjected. Last week, when it had been his turn to mask up and brave the grocery stores, he’d brought home a substantial package of deli-style real bacon. Our stock of cheeses was generous, so I topped off each burger-plus-bacon-on-toast with a slice of Swiss, melting it via a few seconds in the microwave. The result was a good bit tastier than plain veggie burgers.
It was not until a later phone check-in with a non-vegetarian son that we got gently reminded of the incongruity of a veggie bacon-cheeseburger. As all of us continue to navigate this novel pandemic, may most of the incongruities we encounter be this benign. Please take good care, all!
The Wonders of Dual “Virtual Church” —by Jinny Batterson
For the past few years, I’ve attended services at two different religious congregations, one a predominantly “white” Unitarian-Universalist group, the other a predominantly “black” African Methodist Episcopal church. This “dual citizenship” religiously has enriched my spiritual life greatly while posing some practical problems. The physical buildings of the two congregations are several miles apart—a ten-minute commute by car. Both churches have traditionally held their in-person services at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning, so I’ve had to decide each week which service to attend. Sometimes I can “double up” and slip belatedly into the latter part of the AME service, which tends to run a little longer.
Enter the covid-19 pandemic. This viral scourge has caused lots of changes in our customary ways of ordering our lives, not the least of which has been a temporary set of restrictions on large interpersonal gatherings. Now both churches hold their Sunday services virtually. If I set up my computer correctly, I can switch instantaneously between the two, catching both sermons and most of the music both places. Most weeks, the recordings of the services stay on the internet for a few days, so if I miss part of a reading or story, I can catch it on Monday or Tuesday.
This past Sunday, the UU sermon centered on learning to slow the pace of our often frenetic lives, to savor time with family, to relearn habits of connecting that may have gotten diminished or lost altogether in our pre-covid frenzy of work/commute/family/physical health activities. The AME service reminded us that God is the ultimate arbiter of our reality, not the latest breaking news, case counts, or polling results. “We shouldn’t discount the very real challenges,” the minister counseled, while he warned us not to focus on them to the exclusion of our connection with the holy.
The wise words from both sources helped prime me for the week ahead. The music that went with each service was healing, too. In so many ways, I’ll be glad when we have fewer issues related to corona viruses. It will be special to be able to see fellow parishioners face-to-face rather than via computer or smartphone screen. Maybe eventually I’ll have chances again to shake the ministers’ hands. There’s something for me about the experience of physically worshipping together that no virtual environment can fully replace. Still, I don’t want to forget the spiritual gifts and scheduling flexibility that this hiatus from “regular church” has offered me.
Please stay safe, pray a lot, and remember that the gift of life is just that—a gift, to be used as wisely as we can discern, with as much spiritual help as we can find.
Shoelaces and Scrunchies —by Jinny Batterson
Our local newspaper recently
Inserted an unusual item, tucked away on a
Back page away from distressing headlines:
A printed sewing pattern with instructions.
The pattern seems simple enough,
A productive use of some stay-at-home time.
I find an unused cloth shower curtain,
Some leftover curtain lining fabric,
Retrieve an aged sewing machine from a closet.
My first step-by-step effort takes hours
And hours. The four ties take the longest:
Eighteen inch lengths double folded to just a third
Of an inch wide, then stitched and restitched
Into each corner of a smallish rectangle.
There must be an easier way.
Our local craft outlet is temporarily closed,
So I troll the aisles of the nearest big box store:
Aha! shoelaces, right width, nearly right length, still in
Ample supply. I choose a half dozen packages, careful
To leave some for other impromptu seamstresses.
The laces increase my output substantially.
Soon I have a completed stock for family, close neighbors.
After my initial supply has run out, a younger neighbor requests
More. “Got any new shoelaces?” I ask her.
Instead, she supplies scrunchies–those circular hair ties worn
By Olympic gymnasts and high school cheerleaders.
More elastic and less cumbersome than shoelaces.
A few more completed each day, overstitched into
Half moon shapes. When I go to get a leaking tire
Checked, a helpful technician takes one.
“Nice,” he tells me. “It doesn’t steam up my glasses,
And the fabric pattern looks a little like camo.”
We all are doing our best to camouflage
The impact of a tiny virus that has upended so
Many of our prospects.
Earth Has Its Day —by Jinny Batterson
Had this been a “normal” year, there would have been big crowds today commemorating the 50th annual Earth Day. There would have been lots of in-person speeches. There would have been live exhibits from corporations and non-profits with a mixture of important initiatives and “greenwashing,” spotlighting small impacts for mainly public relations value. There would have been more exhortations to “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
This is not a normal year. A small pathogen whose exact origin is still unclear began spreading a respiratory ailment among the global human population in late 2019. As of today, covid-19 had caused nearly 2.5 million known infections and nearly 170,000 deaths. Much of the globe’s human population is on “lockdown.” Public gatherings are few.
In parts of the world, other variations in nature are wreaking havoc in different ways: a plague of locusts in east Africa is destroying food crops, threatening the food supply of tens of millions; forest fires in Ukraine near the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant have recently caused the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to have the worst air pollution of any place in the world; widespread bush fires during Australia’s 2019-2020 summer have blackened millions of acres and killed roughly a billion animals, endangering such unique species as kangaroos and koalas and putting Australia’s agricultural sector at risk; Greenland and Antarctica have ice sheets that are melting at increasing rates.
Perhaps earth is reminding us, in increasingly urgent terms, that we are not the masters of the planet, but its guests and its (temporary) stewards.
For much of my adult life, I’ve accumulated a clipping file of quotations and short pieces of prose that seem meaningful to me. During a personal or societal crisis, I reread them for wisdom. A while ago, I came across the World War II era diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, War Without and Within, edited and first published long after that war was over, in 1980. Anne and her husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh, had spent part of the 1930’s living in Europe to regain some privacy after the highly publicized U.S. kidnapping and murder of their first child. A pacifist often identified with her isolationist husband, Anne was deeply affected by the 1939 onset of war in Europe and the entry of the U.S. into a globalized conflict in late 1941. A diary entry from Easter Monday during the spring of 1942 expresses both sorrow and hope:
“Today is the real Easter morning. Yesterday was overcast and chilly. This morning is still, warm, newly awakened. One walks out into it like a flower just opened. …
When I was young, I always felt a morning like this meant a promise of something wonderful … love in someone’s heart far away from me, or the success of some venture of my own. I thought–quite literally–it was a sign from heaven. The person who was ill would get well. … Or maybe something wonderful was happening for the world–some new spirit blooming. … the morning was a ‘sign.’
I still believe it is a ‘sign,’ but not for anything good happening to me or the world, anything specific. The love is not blooming in someone’s heart. The ventures fail. The one who is sick, dies, and the one who is lost is never found. Hate and cruelty and evil are still rampant, war goes on.
And yet it is a sign. It is a sign that in spite of these things beauty still exists and goes on side by side with horror. That there is love and goodness and beauty and spirit in the world–always. This is only one of the times when it is clothed in flesh–in the flesh of a spring morning.”
Amid the global concern about the covid-19 pandemic and the seemingly unending series of recriminations about whose “fault” the pandemic is, there have been occasional notes of clearer air in unexpected places, of a resurgence of birdsong alongside nearly empty highways.
This morning where I live dawned crisp, cool, bright, with almost jewel-like clarity. May it be a sign. Happy Earth Day!
Sluggish Livers, Fingers in Dikes, Resurrected Economies —by Jinny Batterson
Those of us who’d previously lived comfortably sedate lives as middle class U.S. retirees have had our world shaken by a tiny virus. The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated our news cycles for weeks, causing disruptions in the daily habits of many not directly infected. Whether it’s making a face mask and wearing it on shopping expeditions, compulsively cleaning the bathroom for the fourth or fifth time, praying and worrying about vulnerable loved ones and friends near and far, or playing endless rounds of board games, our previous habits and perspectives have been called into question. A friend with connections in the airline industry recently forwarded a description of a passenger airline system that slowed from a torrent to a trickle practically overnight. Real estate transactions have become more difficult and more uncertain as financial systems try to change their in-person business practices and to adapt to widespread fear. Several personal analogies come to mind.
The one previous time I personally faced serious illness, an Asian friend with extensive training in traditional medicine explained to me that I had a “sluggish liver.” This did not necessarily pertain to a discrete organ, she told me, but a general slowness of circulating energy in my whole body. It’s sometimes seemed to me that our current distribution of wealth and income is a societal “sluggish liver,” one that I don’t pretend to know how to correct, but that does not serve our overall body politic very well. This pandemic has highlighted the differences in vulnerabilities and access to services among those at different places on the income/wealth distribution curve. However, some high-profile cases of the virus have also shown that wealth and privilege do not grant blanket immunity.
Having a partially Dutch ancestry, I was raised on the story of the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike to forestall a major flood, while friends ran to get adults to engineer a more permanent solution. I’m tremendously grateful to the health workers and first responders who are currently putting their fingers in the dikes of our medical testing and delivery systems. I want to believe that at least some of our political and social leaders are the adults who’ll help create a more permanent solution. Perhaps a better “global pandemic warning” system is a partial remedy, vaguely akin to some improvements in the tsunami warning system that were put in place after a 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused widespread devastation and loss of life.
In the religious tradition I’m part of, this is Easter weekend, a time of traditional gatherings to celebrate spring and the renewal of life, as embodied in the resurrection of a crucified savior. Other religious traditions have not-dissimilar celebrations: Jewish friends celebrate Passover at this same time of year; the Moslem holy month of Ramadan will start this year in late April. In China, an early April weekend features tomb-sweeping, honoring one’s ancestors. Most celebrations this year have been curtailed, transferred to “virtual,” or postponed or canceled in order to reduce the spread of contagion.
It’s too early to tell what our global society will look like after this pandemic subsides. Studies of previous epidemics and pandemics, whether the “Black Death” that wiped out nearly a third of Europe’s population during periodic outbreaks starting in the fourteenth century, or the 1918 flu estimated to have killed nearly 50 million globally, or smallpox, or polio, can perhaps provide clues. As I look forward to a somewhat muted Easter morning, I pray that the society and economies we come together to resurrect post-covid-19 will be more just, more responsive, more joyful. My best wishes to all for a blessed Easter.
Year of the Phoenix? —by Jinny Batterson
During the shortest days of the year for the past several years, an exhibit of lighted figures has come to our town—a multi-acre display of LED-illumined silk lanterns produced in the Chinese city of Zigong, in Sichuan province. Zigong’s artisans have long crafted lanterns for Chinese festivals. In recent decades they’ve gained global fame for their beautiful handiwork. Increasing numbers of U.S. cities are using winter-dormant park spaces to mount both static and interactive displays.
Our town’s display centerpiece is near the shore of a multi-acre lake: until this year a magnificent dragon (shown in a previous post—https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/01/03/chinese-lantern-festival-an-american-version/). When I attended this year’s event just before (western) New Year, I wondered, as I wandered down a slope decorated with shapes of real and mythical animals, if the dragon had taken its accustomed place. No dragon, not this year. Instead, an equally impressive floating display of a mythical phoenix, complete with pulsing lights going from head to tail.
The night I saw the display, the weather was fairly mild for late December. Attendees from multiple cultural traditions mingled and oohed and aahed at the depiction of the fabulous bird. A little research about legends of the phoenix show the magic bird as a staple in the mythology of multiple civilizations, including Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese:
“In Asia the phoenix reigns over all the birds, and is the symbol of the Chinese Empress and feminine grace, as well as the sun and the south. The sighting of the phoenix is a good sign that a wise leader has ascended to the throne and a new era has begun. It was representative of Chinese virtues: goodness, duty, propriety, kindness and reliability. Palaces and temples are guarded by ceramic protective beasts, all led by the phoenix.” ( https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ancient-symbolism-magical-phoenix-002020; accessed 2020/03/27)
When our town’s lantern display was packed up for return to Zigong in mid-January, it was nearly time for Chinese New Year (or “Spring Festival,” celebrated in 2020 starting on January 25). The upcoming Chinese year would start another cycle of the 12-animal Chinese zodiac, which includes the dragon, along with eleven other real-life animals (in sequence: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig). So far, the phoenix has not become part of the Chinese zodiac, though the mythic bird is often considered the feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon.
Now that covid-19 has become a global pandemic, I’ve been asked, like more and more people all over the world, to self-isolate at home to reduce the speed of the virus’s spread, allowing health care systems time to adapt by “flattening the curve” of new infections. If I’m a bit bored, it’s a small price to pay for a larger social good. The next generation in our family includes two members of hospital medical staffs, and their safety is a big concern.
This enforced time at home gives me license to engage in reveries about the mythical bird. Many legends of the phoenix depict it as an extremely long-lived creature who senses approaching death, builds her own funeral pyre, and then dies in fiery majesty. Shortly afterwards, the next generation of phoenix rises from the ashes.
What might the symbol of the phoenix mean as 2020 begins with a global pandemic—the death of an overly competitive ethos and the dawning of an age of more thorough global cooperation? a rethinking of our interlocking systems of education, health care, corrections, and social welfare? a reining in of our preoccupation with material wealth? renewed reverence for the natural world that supports us all?
Let’s hope that 2020 will turn out to be a year of the phoenix.