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!
Spring Hopes Eternal –by Jinny Batterson
It was a rough winter–
Seesawing temperatures, sniffles, scandals
Bluster and traded insults
masquerading as diplomacy.
Yet spring again comes:
Dandelions, daffodils do their duty, even in snow,
As sun-colored harbingers of later blossoms.
Local ponds welcome migrating flocks;
The woods are awash in birdsong.
The soul stirs, throwing off its
What new creation will we grow
now that spring has come again?
Dragon Kites on Tiananmen Square —by Jinny Batterson
(Portions of this post have been adapted from my upcoming book, Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)
A growing number of locations world-wide are sponsoring kite festivals. In the town where I now live, March winds bring out people of all ages, eager to enjoy the outdoors as winter ebbs, to search for just the right spot and orientation to launch their creations skyward. The basic homemade wrapping-paper-and-balsa-strut diamond shaped kites I flew as a child pale in comparison with the elaborate heirloom and contemporary kites that participate in some of these festivals. A quick internet search turned up an American-based kite flyers association with members in 25 countries, with at least one U.S.-based festival in every month of the year. (http://kite.org/activities/events/event-calendar/)
One blustery spring day in 2000 on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, I got to see a few of the world’s most cherished, most elaborate kites. My husband and I were partway through a tourist stay in Beijing. Our first two days had been filled with organized guided tours: the Forbidden City, a nearby section of the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, some of the subterranean tunnels built under the modern city during the 1960’s and 1970’s to shelter residents in the event of a bombing attack by “the Soviets or another country,” as our tour guide put it. Now we had a free day to explore on our own. We decided to return to the vicinity of Tiananmen Square.
As we approached, we noticed several box kites bobbing and weaving in the sky above. Once on the square itself, we found several older men preparing their heirloom dragon kites for flight. The kites, nearly fifty feet long, had extensive tails made of circles of paper glued to lightweight wooden rings, all linked together by three parallel strings that ran the kites’ entire length and could be used for steering. The rings were decorated with sturdy feathers for stability. Only when the tail was almost fully aloft was the dragon-shaped head of the kite attached and quickly pulled skyward. We watched until our necks cramped from craning upward. We had little language to express our amazement—Jim gave a thumbs up sign. Perhaps our rapt attention was language enough.
Where the Great Wall Meets the Desert —by Jinny Batterson
(This entry is adapted from excerpts of Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)
In August 2006, I got to see the western end of the Great Wall, near Jaiyuguan, a small city in Gansu province. Many years earlier, I’d first seen part of the wall near Beijing on a guided group tour. On this 2006 visit, my husband Jim and I were headed in stages by train to our first year-long China teaching assignment, in far western Xinjiang. We hadn’t originally planned to view the western terminus of the Great Wall, but fate (and some poor planning on our part) had landed us in Jaiyuguan for an overnight stay.
We’d been able to get from our initial arrival city of Beijing as far as Jaiyuguan with the assistance of English-speaking Chinese friends and helpful travel agents. The further we got from Beijing, the fewer local people we knew. Also, the less likely we were to encounter English-capable travel agents. Once we arrived in Jaiyuguan, we knew no one. We’d met no one on the train we could ask for help. We got ourselves and our luggage off onto the station platform. Then I approached the station clerk to buy tickets that evening for the next stage of our westward journey. I got stonewalled. Pulling out my phrase book, trying different dates, I got repeated exposure to a Chinese expression that’s become one of my least favorites: “Mei you,” (pronounced like the abbreviated version of mayonnaise), meaning roughly, “Don’t have.”
Stymied as far as immediate train travel was concerned, we located a helpful taxi driver who guided us to a comfortable tourist hotel near Jaiyuguan’s city center. Luckily we were able to arrange at least one night’s stay there. After we’d settled into our hotel room, we explored a nearby city park, ate dinner at a local restaurant, checked out some small shops, then spent a quiet night’s sleep away from a clanking, crowded train.
The following morning, we decided to do a little local touring. Using sign language, a bilingual tourist map of the area, and some basic Mandarin, we engaged a taxi to take us to the fort at the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven,” the westernmost outpost of the Great Wall. Our driver, a middle-aged woman, would wait for about an hour while we toured, then return us to our hotel in town.
The fort was several miles west, straddling the narrowest portion of a corridor between two high hills. Our map’s brief commentary explained that it had been built to guard against barbarian invaders who could descend toward China through the pass. Much of the fort had recently been reconstructed. It was tall, square, thick, appropriately forbidding, with concentric sets of walls and gates to keep invaders out and soldiers in. It had its own water supply. A holding pond to one side supported a luxuriant growth of shoreline willows. From the fort’s highest walls, I could see nearby wall remnants that were little more than crumbling mounds of packed earth in a parched landscape.
I saw few other foreigners. There was little English-language signage to explain the construction and history of this portion of the wall. Then a Chinese dad who sported a T-shirt advertising a Charlottesville, Virginia, pizza shop engaged me in conversation and provided some additional information:
“The fort is built mainly of rammed earth. Its initial construction occurred during the Ming Dynasty, starting in the 14th century. In addition to being a military fort, it was also a trading post along the Silk Road between China and the West,” he told me.
When I asked how he’d come by his excellent English and his American-themed shirt, the man told me he was a cardiologist who’d done part of his training at the University of Virginia’s Medical Center. Before I could ask many more questions, he politely bid me good-bye, rounded up his family, and departed the scene in an air-conditioned minivan that looked a great deal more comfortable than our taxi.
Who Was Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Why Does It Matter? —by Jinny Batterson
After the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at a high school in south Florida, I listened to some of the early news reports. Of course, there was outrage at the taking of seventeen lives, fourteen of them students at the school. There was the customary soul-searching and hand-wringing over supposed reasons for the violence that once again had erupted in our midst.
Then I partially tuned out. I wrote yet another set of letters and messages to my NRA-indebted U.S. Senators. I commiserated with family and friends. I tried to focus mainly on small, more localized projects where I could make a positive difference.
While I tried to process this latest affront to human dignity, somewhere in the back of my mind, the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas rang a bell. Most high schools are named either geographically, or for some local educator or political figure. Why, then, did this woman’s name seem somehow familiar? After a while, I checked the internet for a biography of Ms. Stoneman Douglas. First I noticed a picture of an aged woman in a brimmed hat, holding a cat on her lap. Skimming the accompanying text, I found that Marjory had been born in 1890, an only child of a marriage that unraveled when she was six. She spent much of her childhood under the stern tutelage of her mother’s parents in Taunton, Massachusetts. As she grew up, her mother’s mental and physical health deteriorated, leading to several institutionalizations, then a death due to metastatic breast cancer shortly after Marjory graduated from college.
Always an avid reader, Marjory began writing for publication in her teens. After a brief tumultuous marriage, Marjory moved to Florida in 1915 and worked for several years at her father’s newspaper, which eventually became the Miami Herald. Over time, she established a career as a free-lance writer, penning over 100 articles and short stories, several novels, as well as the non-faction account The Everglades: River of Grass, first published in 1947.
Now the connection clicked—I’d spent a couple of vacations exploring parts of Everglades National Park, including the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area. I read further into her biography. In later life, Douglas became a tireless advocate for preservation of the Everglades, earning several awards, plus the enmity of some agricultural and real estate developers. She turned 100 the year Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School opened, and lived for eight more years, continuing to write and speak about the need for good environmental stewardship. According to a local journalist who’d interviewed Stoneman Douglas several times, “She had a tongue like a switchblade and the moral authority to embarrass bureaucrats and politicians and make things happen.”
I applaud the ongoing efforts by student survivors at the school named in her honor to reimagine our national obsession with guns. I’ve heard that some of their fundraising appeals contain variations of this Stoneman Douglas quote: “Be a nuisance where it counts; Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics—but never give up.” She didn’t give up. Neither can we.
Civic Faith, Civic Hope, Civic Love —by Jinny Batterson
This past Saturday started out chilly, with intermittent showers. When I first awoke, I felt discouraged about political shenanigans that have infected multiple levels of our government— disagreement about state and federal voting maps, with lawsuits, hastily crafted legislation, and lots of confusion about districts for upcoming elections; serious questions about the impartiality of our judiciary and proper procedures for selecting judges; looming ballooning federal deficits; periodic government shutdowns; inadequate funding for education and health care; voter suppression; little progress on comprehensive immigration reform; climate change dissension; despoiling of rivers, forests, coastlines; White House staff scandals.
Rather than roll over and try to go back to sleep, though, I got up, got out my umbrella and rain gear, then took the public bus to downtown Raleigh to participate in this year’s “HistoricThousands on Jones Street” march and rally, the twelfth such annual public gathering. HKonJ has become an increasingly potent way for ordinary citizens to voice their concerns near the legislative offices of our North Carolina elected representatives. Multiple non-partisan groups had sent me invitations to the march. Arriving at the assembly area, I saw clusters of fellow prospective marchers with well-made, well-used banners and signs. However, what most intrigues me about such gatherings are the individual signs, banners, and costumes participants come up with to express their views. Among the first I spotted was worn by a neatly bearded man—a t-shirt that proclaimed in yellow letters against a black background: “Make Tacos, Not Walls.” Not far away, a married couple with a religious bent held up complementary signs—his explained “I’m a privileged white male who believes in liberty and justice for all,” while hers was briefer: “That ‘love thy neighbor’ thing? I meant that!—@GOD.” Two younger guys carried a poster with slightly wobbly large letters. In bold black and red, it demanded: “Who voted for Gerry Mander?”, an indictment of the more and more brazen legislative ploys to create voting districts that unfairly advantage selected incumbents, groups, or political parties.
As a woman, I was especially receptive to signs crafted by women. Just before the formal march started, I talked with two female friends who’d come from different parts of North Carolina to meet at HKonJ. One had written on a rough piece of cardboard, the kind sometimes used by homeless people at major intersections, “Hope Will Never Be Silent!” Her companion had a slightly more elaborate poster, in vibrant colors, “Love Is Why We Are Here.”
Once showers resumed after the march, attendance dwindled. Many of us sought shelter in local restaurants and shops. As I headed down Fayetteville Street toward a local snack bar run by an immigrant family, I noticed two women seated at an outdoor table, deep in conversation. One had on a flowered hat of the type sported by the political satire group the “Raging Grannies.”
After a bit, they interrupted their talk long enough for me to ask for a photo of them and their sign, a quote from earlier social activist Dorothy Day: “Love is the Only Solution.”
The HKonJ event helped renew my faith in the capacities and decency of ordinary citizens. We came together to express, for whatever issues most compelled us, our stakes in this city, state, country and planet. I’d guess that within the overall march were folks whose views opposed each other’s on one or more issues. To be able to “walk in each other’s shoes” will take further work, listening, and mutual respect. Nevertheless, despite the weather, we all walked together, chanted together, laughed together, sometimes even sang together.
Long ago, a prolific letter writer explained that faith, hope, and love abide forever. This is as true of our civic life as it is of our religious and spiritual lives. With civic faith, civic hope, and, above all, civic love, I’m persuaded that we can together get ourselves out of the challenging set of messes we’ve gotten ourselves into. Happy Valentine’s Day!
A Parable for Our Times? —by Jinny Batterson
A number of years ago, a friend told me the following parable, which I’ve adapted slightly to fit our current situation:
During a rare break in legislative sessions, a small bipartisan group of junior legislators arranged a recreational outing at a big scenic lake nearby. Everyone was invited. The hosts hoped that during this lull in legislative routine, they could begin to rebuild some of the trust and cooperative spirit that had badly frayed during several previous contentious debates.
All was going well, with even a slight uptick in cordiality, until a sudden storm came up and capsized the large tour boat where everyone was riding. Panic set in; most passengers were thrown overboard. Two of the area’s leading legislators, one from each party, were thrown further from the main boat than the rest, out of sight of the others. Just as both were about to go under, neither having learned to swim, they spied a small row boat nearby. At first it seemed they might come to blows or try to keep each other out of the smaller boat, but after a bit both made it in, one at either end. Although there were oars in the oar locks, neither legislator made any move toward rowing to shore. Instead, the two sat, stone-faced, as the small boat floated in circles in the middle of the lake. A while later, the boat began to fill with water—it was likely not a brand-new boat and had perhaps not had the best of maintenance. There was a bailing bucket attached to a rope on the boat’s floor, but neither legislator made a move toward bailing, either. Instead, the two continued to glare at each other.
Finally, one concentrated his most withering gaze on the other and said with a sneer, “Your end of the boat is sinking.”
Groundhog —by Jinny Batterson
Harbinger of spring, furry cousin of a squirrel,
We celebrate your special day
By snatching you from burrow and sleep
To blink at the light–strong sun means longer winter.
Midway between poinsettia and forsythia,
We want a fellow creature to provide some assurance
That winter will end–a prognostication from one
Who also dislikes freezing cold and biting storms.
You don’t much care about the splendor of the overcoats,
Scarves, or top hats of those who briefly torment you.
Their race, religion, creed, or politics also matter little.
What’s more important Is that they make their
Ceremony short, so that you can return to needed
Rest before the frenzy of spring.
Plump marmot, I salute you; I beg for
Your wisdom to forebear when poked and prodded
And made to squint in uncomfortable directions.
And, yes, I want to believe that spring is on its way,
Whatever its speed.
Why I’m Glad Our Granddaughter is a Girl Scout —by Jinny Batterson
I recently spent a week of after-Christmas visit with parts of the next generations of our family on the U.S. West Coast. As visiting grandma, I got to attend some of the children’s after school activities, including a meeting of our granddaughter’s “Daisies and Brownies” troop. Before the meeting, I was curious about how this branch of Girl Scouting had evolved in the generations since I started Brownies in the 1950’s. At first, lacking everyday exposure to younger children, I found this recent meeting’s hubbub a little daunting, though it’s likely that little girls are no more or less squirmy and giggly than my friends and I were so many years ago. For starters, girls now can become “Daisies” a year or two younger than the Brownie program I entered in second grade. Still, I recognized parts of the program: an opening circle and a check-in when each girl could relate any important events or concerns, lots of singing, lots of running around, a craft activity, time outdoors, a pledge to honor oneself and others, a short-term service project, plus an introduction to this year’s annual cookie sales campaign for the scouts, parents, and grandparents present.
Since the meeting, I’ve ruminated a bit about why I’m glad our granddaughter is in Girl Scouting. Some American girls recently gained admission to Boy Scout troops. The “#metoo” social media movement has gained wide publicity for its attempts to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and sexual harassment (something the Girl Scouts have been doing with less fanfare for decades). Why continue to be a Girl Scout in these changing times?
Based on my previous exposure and my brief reconnection through my granddaughter, these are several aspects that still seem important to me:
—revolving skills-based leadership within a basic structure. No one person has all the skills needed for the many different situations life will throw at us. In Scouting, some will excel at crafts, while others can organize; some are adept song leaders; some have sports skills; some are tech-savvy; still others are gifted at laying campfires. In the troop where I was a member, one girl, Cheryl, was somewhat less athletic than most, not good at crafts, a reluctant camper, quiet and shy. The rest of us knew, though, that she was very important to our troop. She had a family asset missing to the rest of us: her mom worked at a large nearby military base. At cookie sales time, it was Cheryl’s turn to be a star. Though the rest of us were a little jealous as she loaded the family station wagon full of cartons of cookies for distribution, we knew her work was vital to reaching our sales goals each year.
—an international focus in addition to the local, state, and national civic engagement of each Girl Scout. For me, this was best exemplified by the first international Scouting center, a chalet in the Swiss Alps that opened in 1932. Many Scouts know the “Chalet song” with its aspirational closing: “And this its dedication shall never fail nor be undone, each race, each creed, each nation beneath its roof are one.” The Chalet is now the oldest of five operating international centers, including a recently organized rotating event space among Girl Scouts in Africa.
—An affirmation of the worth of each individual, along with the importance of working together toward common goals. Like Cheryl in our troop long ago, some Scouts will have less readily visible skills, but Girl Scouting teaches that each of us has an important role to play. No one is inconsequential. When we get overly invested in a “great leader” model, it can be all too easy to forget this basic truth.
About this time last year, I was a local participant in one of many “Women’s Marches” that occurred globally on the third weekend of January. At this year’s anniversary weekend, I’ll have to track hometown activities from afar. Yet after having observed our granddaughter’s Girl Scout troop, I’m heartened that, if and when we forget to value all the world’s citizens, she and others like her will continue to show up to remind us: all of us matter, including women and girls.
Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version –by Jinny Batterson
Happy (Western) New Year! As global cultures mingle more often, more of us Americans of all backgrounds are getting exposure to holidays and calendars celebrated elsewhere. For the past three years, a traveling exhibit of lighted silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter, a little earlier than the period of “Chinese New Year,” which typically occurs in late January or early February and includes a lantern festival on its final day.
Yesterday I braved colder than normal temperatures to see this year’s display at a local outdoor amphitheater that otherwise would be shuttered for the season. This year’s North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival was bigger and better than ever, its signature lake-surface dragon periodically spouting water rather than fire into the frigid air. Weather had diminished last night’s crowds somewhat, but not the enthusiasm of those who braved the elements, sometimes fortified with spiked hot chocolate or coffee. Most of the twenty-five major complexes of lights had placards describing them in both English and Chinese.
“Lantern festival” in China is an old celebration, thought to have originated almost two thousand years ago, celebrated at the first new moon of the lunar new year, the final day of the two-week Chinese Spring Festival celebration. According to legend, a leading Chinese deity, the Jade Emperor, was angry with villagers for killing a crane, one of his favorite birds. He planned to send down fire to destroy the village, but the villagers, warned by the emperor’s daughter, hung red lanterns around their houses, set off firecrackers, and lit bonfires in the streets, tricking the emperor into thinking the village was already on fire and thus saving the village. Ever since, in towns and villages throughout China, people parade with lanterns on the evening of Lantern Festival. If you have a chance to see the North Carolina version, please wear plenty of layers, and prepare to revel in winter light.