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!
Dog Days Dreaming —by Jinny Batterson
It’s hot and muggy outside, pretty typical for central North Carolina this time of year. I’m used to calling late July and August “dog days,” figuring that even dogs with any sense would spend this part of the year lolling in the shade (or, if available, in an air-conditioned interior). It’s also a time when summer begins to drag a bit. My recollection of “dog days” during my schooling is that by this part of August, I was bored, “dog tired” of school vacation. Going to the swimming pool, attending a fireman’s carnival, getting a root beer float or a hand-dipped ice cream at our local soda fountain—none of these activities had quite the same allure as earlier in the summer. I was beginning to long for the uptick in social life that went with school’s return. Some of my friends probably felt the same way, but we were reluctant to share our views out loud. Instead, we hewed to a teen party line that summer was all fun and school was a drag. Turns out the term “dog days” has less to do with our pet canines than with the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius, the “dog star,” during a roughly 40-day period in July and August, noted since Greek and Roman times.
Sleep research indicates that most of us dream. Fewer of us remember our dreams on waking, especially during these groggy, hot days of late summer. That’s true for me. More often than dream memories, I’ll awaken with a tune or fragment of a lyric in my head. Recently, I woke up with the first verse of “America the Beautiful” as an ear worm. Why that song? Why this time of year? Going down a rabbit hole via online search engines, I found three additional verses, along with some background about the author and the conditions that prompted the song’s writing.
The lyrics for “America the Beautiful” were penned by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College. She began the poem while spending the summer of 1893 teaching English at a school in Colorado Springs. She and several other teachers made a day trip up nearby Pike’s Peak. From its summit, they could see the fertile plains below. Bates scribbled the first lines of what later became “America the Beautiful” into a small notebook she carried with her:
“Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”
In 1893, there was a major economic downturn, creating distress for many laboring families and farmers. This became a theme of the second verse, which implores God to help mend America’s flaws:
“America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-countrol, thy liberty in law.”
The poem first appeared in print in a weekly journal around the time of Independence Day in 1895. Bates included a third verse lauding the sacrifices of earlier soldiers:
“Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.”
Bates’ final expanded version, published in 1913, contained a fourth verse laying out a vision of an America that lived up to its ideals:
“Oh, beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”
In 1918, when the armistice ending the first world war was announced, U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe burst out singing “America the Beautiful.” The song, much easier than “The Star Spangled Banner,” has since become an unofficial American anthem. It’s been performed by dozens of American pop idols, including Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Although it’s rare to hear all four verses, versions have entertained audiences at Super Bowls, presidential inaugurals, and hosts of Independence Day celebrations. One of the most moving performances was a guitar-accompanied rendition by country singer Willie Nelson and a host of entertainment luminaries in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.
In previous U.S. political cycles, a waking aspect of “dog days” has often been a brief reprieve from political campaigning. Media outlets have provided less news about our government, which sort of “goes on vacation” along with many of the rest of us. Campaign advertising, social media posts, email blasts, robocalls have stayed quiescent until after Labor Day in September. No such luck this year. We’re being subjected to death by a thousand tweets.
Regardless, until after Labor Day, I’ll keep ignoring as much of the political hoopla as I can. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the August 12, 1859 birthday of Katharine Lee Bates. I’m going to relish her lyrics of patriot dreams of an America, with our caring people and stunning nature, that will one day be beautiful again.
American Report Card: An F in the Three C’s —by Jinny Batterson
For much of my formal schooling, several times each school year I’d bring home a report card. In high school and then college, those reports typically evaluated my performance based on a scale from “A” to “F,” where “A” was the best grade possible, and “F” represented failure in a particular course. My grades in all subjects were mostly A’s and B’s—enough to be on the honor roll of students with superior study skills and motivation. I rarely got a C—which counted as the average.
Some of my course names also fell in the A to F range—algebra, biology, chemistry, drama, English, French. Recently I sent a postcard, a low-tech equivalent of a tweet, to a member of our national government, suggesting a set of three C’s as subject matter to measure how we as a nation are doing: curiosity, compassion, and care for nature. I also suggested that these universal human values, long assumed to be part of the American ethos, needed some shoring up on our shores. In the wake of various recent national policy shifts, our country’s reputation for such values has dramatically declined. Curiosity, compassion, and care for nature are in somewhat short supply in United States official policies due to cutbacks in science funding, rollbacks of environmental safeguards and global climate agreements, but especially in the way we are treating recent immigrants.
After I mailed the card, I mused about the letter “F,” signifying failure, but also fear, fear that can produce or compound both personal and systems failures. Certain fears are sensible motivators to prepare for environmental or life challenges: fears of earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards, floods, erratic weather, poisonous snakes and spiders, rabid animals, aging, ill health, losses of loved ones in dangerous situations. Other fears function mainly to divide us, worsening real or perceived unfairness, especially when combined with scapegoating of some convenient “other.” We may be persuaded to be frightened of job losses, loss of income, loss of housing, loss of our ability to pay for needed medical screenings or treatments, loss of property or property value, all because “they” are encroaching on “our” prerogatives. Fear can be the opposite of all three C’s, shutting us off from exploration, from compassionate and thoughtful dialogue, from other meaningful interactions with our fellow humans and other creatures. We may engage in more and more absurd rituals to try to protect our presumed advantages.
Most of the immigrants in my family came to what is now the United States of America before there were immigration quotas or even a U.S.A. I’m not in danger of being deported. Still, I am troubled by many aspects of the current immigration debate. I’ve found recent reports of children taken from their loved ones at border crossings and put into detention away from their parents or close relatives deeply disturbing. Such behavior suggests an absence of curiosity, compassion, or care for nature.
Splitting apart families who cross our borders to seek asylum from violence in their countries of origin is both morally wrong and politically untenable. Tasking our border security agents with taking children from their parents or close relatives and putting these children into separate detention facilities is much more likely to breed future terrorists and thugs than engaging in more proactive, humane procedures. Taking infants, toddlers, and young children from their loved ones is, by almost anyone’s definition, a sign of unfounded fear, an abject policy failure, a huge red “F.” Got any postcards handy?
The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley —by Jinny Batterson
Traveling in Europe produces a different sense of time—my previous benchmarks for “old” settlements, the historic recreations of Williamsburg and Jamestown, Virginia, become mere youngsters in comparison with the Greek and Roman era ruins that dot much of western Europe. Even the relatively “new” churches and cathedrals of France generally date from centuries earlier than the 1607-or-thereabouts thatched mud huts of the initial European settlers at Jamestown.
While the U.S. Southwest contains mysterious remnants of earlier civilizations—Anasazi settlements that flourished about a thousand years ago before being suddenly abandoned—these ruins are still relative newbies compared with the cave and cliff sites excavated over the past century and a half along the middle reaches of the Vézère valley in southwestern France.
According to the best available methods for establishing rough eras, early humans first appeared in the Vézère Valley nearly half a million years ago. I remember reading earlier about the now famous prehistoric paintings at Lascaux—elaborate depictions of animals from about 20,000 years ago, discovered by accident in 1940 by youngsters exploring a cave.
Though I haven’t yet visited the replica of that cave (the original was closed to visitors during the 1960’s because the crush of tourists with their attendant humidity and CO2 was damaging the paintings), I recently wound up along the Vézère where some even earlier settlements have been discovered—a small village called Les Eyzies. After a morning’s taxi ride through misty weather, our driver let my husband and me out at the small vacation settlement at the edge of town where we’d booked a stay. We dropped our luggage at the front desk, then set out with our umbrellas to explore. The first large building we came across was a welcome center for the area’s prehistory attractions, with some basic exhibits about various Vézère valley sites (over 80 of them have been excavated at least partially so far) and how archeology is conducted.
Because we’d opted not to rent a car and because taxi rates were fairly pricey in this mostly rural area, we limited our explorations to what we could reach on foot. First we visited a hillside complex, l’Abri Pataud, that had been explored from the 1950’s through the 1970’s by a team led by Harvard professor H.L. Movius. Due to periodic freeze/thaw erosion and to the situation and geology of the site, multiple levels of tools and remains were found dating from about 35,000 to about 20,000 years ago, encompassing both an interglacial warm period and an ice age. The earliest relics seem to indicate the recurrent presence of nomadic hunter-gatherers who may have used the site as a short-term hunting camp. Later levels indicate somewhat more settled use of the shelter, which became deeper over time.
The following day, we bought tickets to the National Prehistory Museum, a modern cliffside complex that has been expanded several times. Extensive exhibits of stone tools and of skeletons of prehistoric animals and humans were leavened with videos and graphics of likely tool-making techniques during the various periods. In between visits to the area’s prehistory, we sampled some of the crafts and foods of the modern small town, which provides a hearty welcome to school groups, vacationing families, and older tourists like us.
As contemporary humans continue the sometimes difficult twin transitions in global climate and human consciousness, I’m grateful for increased awareness of these long-enduring prehistoric ancestors. Their progress and evolution may seem glacial to us, but they bequeathed to their modern descendants the basic intelligence to adapt their living styles during drastic shifts in their physical environment. They also gave us a less tangible, but no less important inheritance—a sense of gentle humor and whimsy. May we use all these tools well.
Aubrac’s Flelds of Wild Jonquils —by Jinny Batterson
In late May, as I was walking across a sparsely settled upland French plateau along a stretch of one pilgrimage route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I encountered a delicious fragrance—delicate and sweet and lingering. I wasn’t sure where it was coming from. Despite, or perhaps because of, a fair amount of rainy weather, the meadows and woodlands abounded in spring blooms, many of them unfamiliar to me. That evening at the small guest house where we had booked a room, I noticed a vase of flowers with the same delicate fragrance. I asked the proprietress what these small white blooms were called. “Jonquils des poètes,” she told me in French.
I’m not sure what the English equivalent is. The internet pictures I’ve found of “Poet’s jonquils” look similar, but not identical to the flowers I remember from my trip. A few days further into my journey, I arrived midmorning at the tiny town of Aubrac, after spending a couple of hours crossing several miles of minimally fenced upland pastures dotted with jonquils des poètes, some being contentedly munched by local cattle. The weather was cool and misty.
At the near edge of town was a forbidding-looking Romanesque structure. A guide was explaining to a group of tourists in a language I could not understand the wonders and historic significance of this church. According to the French signpost I could partly understand, this former Benedictine monastery was at least a thousand years old and likely built on the foundations of an even earlier structure.
Most of the other buildings along the road and edging the upland pastures were hotels, hostels, or small inns. I noticed one small cafe/guest house that seemed to be open. Several of us stopped and picked out an outdoor table under a protective awning. A warm drink seemed a good idea. It took a while for anyone to come to take our orders—after a bit, an elegant young woman showed up, apologizing somewhat for the delay, explaining that she and the other town residents were all still stressed out from the previous weekend’s “transhumance” festival that annually draws thousands to the area. I’d seen pictures and postcards of this celebration of the opening of common upland pastures for the area’s prized cattle. A nearby town square was still littered with floral garlands and signs from the festival. (Find a set of commercial pictures of the 2018 festival here: http://hotel-lion-or.com/aveyron/fete-transhumance-aubrac/)
When our hostess finally brought our coffees and hot chocolates, she stopped to take a smoke break and we began to ask her questions. All of us were curious about the town, whose year-round population has dwindled markedly from a peak over a century ago. Until the late 19th century, our hostess told us, Aubrac had been a traditional farming village, but the harshness of the climate and the difficulty of earning an adequate living caused many farm families to leave the area and seek better lives in French cities. Lots of the adults became small shopkeepers or restaurateurs in and around Paris. However, they retained cottages in Aubrac and continued to bring their families for summer vacations in their former hometown. At about the same time, some area doctors discovered that the clean, cool air in the Aubrac highlands helped tubercular patients. Several tuberculosis sanatoria were opened over the next decades—some have since become hotels or hostels. Most of the local economy now revolves around tourism, compressed into the three or four months of warmer weather. The local cattle, a special hardy breed, supply photo opportunities as well as milk or meat.
Our hostess explained between puffs that she was even busier than she’d expected post-festival: her five rooms were all rented for the week—a group of businessmen from New York City had come to explore the option of buying quantities of jonquils des poètes to use in a new upscale perfume fragrance. She said that this particular type of jonquil only grew in the wild and had not yet been successfully cultivated. Some of each year’s blooms already were collected by locals to supply French perfumeries in the southern city of Grasse, a noted perfume center.
I never got to meet the businessmen, who most probably were jet-lagged and perhaps also technology-deprived in this isolated small town. My current exposure to a former-NYC-businessman-turned-politician has temporarily soured me on the ethics and business practices of some. My hope is that if a deal is struck, the good people of Aubrac will be fairly compensated for their labor and their wild-growing fragrant white blossoms. I also hope that enough flowers will be left in the fields so that cattle, pilgrims, and residents can continue to enjoy their essence in their native habitat.
A Lot About Aligot —by Jinny Batterson
In late spring, I went with my husband Jim to central France for an extended trip. The first part consisted of a scaled-back pilgrimage walk along part of the “Camino Saint Jacques de Compostela.” Jim had contracted with an outfitter to haul our luggage and to reserve private rooms at fairly evenly spaced B&B’s or small inns, about ten miles apart, while we hiked one branch of a pilgrimage route for two weeks.
The particular section we chose to walk went from the small city of Le Puy en Velay, site of a well-known shrine to a black Madonna, to Conques, a tiny village nestled in a steep valley, home to a set of relics of an early French Christian martyr, Sainte Foy. Though much more comfortable than a longer pilgrimage walk Jim had done earlier with young friends, this trek had enough variables and unknowns in trail conditions and weather so it was still something of an adventure. We were lucky with both trail and weather, getting lost only briefly, and thoroughly drenched just once.
Much of our walk was through an upland plateau region generally known as the Massif Central, including the most sparsely populated French department, Lozere, with more cows than people. After we left Le Puy, we were mainly in countryside, dotted here and there with small villages, ruins of old castles, historic churches and shrines, crosses at many trail junctions, plus lots and lots of cows. Early in the trip, several communal suppers with other pilgrims gave us exposure to a local dairy specialty dish, aligot, one with an ancient pedigree.
Variations of a local legend say that in the sixth century, three area bishops were convened by the local ruler to help settle a dispute. As negotiations dragged on, the bishops got hungry. Each took out some special ingredients he’d brought with him and gave them to a local cook to turn into a meal. The bishop of St. Flour had brought lots of potatoes (or, in an earlier version of the story, bread). The bishop of Rodez had brought cheese and milk and butter, while the bishop of Mende had brought salt and garlic.
The cook decided to keep things simple. He first cooked the potatoes, then added the other ingredients to the mix, stirring briskly to blend everything together. The bishops enjoyed the dish so much that they all vied to take any leftovers home, but the remains of the mix were so thoroughly stuck to the bottom of the pot that the dish remained local to the upland plateau where they’d met.
The several iterations of aligot we experienced came with a great deal of ceremony—the cook in charge would appear with a large cauldron which was placed on an equally imposing trivet near the common dining area. The cook would then proceed to lift a big wooden spoon out of the pot to show how smooth and flexible the mixture was, then transfer huge glops of the stuff into serving bowls for us hungry pilgrims. To me, aligot seemed a sort of cross between garlic mashed potatoes and cheese fondue. It congealed quickly as it cooled. Though quite nourishing and warming on chill, rainy evenings, it could sit heavy on the stomach. It digested better if washed down with local wine or beer (or maybe even something stronger).
Once we completed our walk, descending from the plateau into milder weather in other regions, we sometimes had the option of choosing aligot as an accompaniment to our meal, but we usually passed. Aligot, as the bishops surmised, needs a wild, chill setting to reach its full potential.
Honeysuckle Sweetness —by Jinny Batterson
By this time in June, the school year is almost over in many parts of the U.S. In the mid-Atlantic small town where I grew up (a long time ago), the final two weeks or so of school corresponded with honeysuckle blossom season. As my companions and I walked to and from school (along a half mile stretch that was uphill only one way and rarely saw winter snows), we passed by several vacant lots where honeysuckle vines had insinuated themselves into the landscape. Back then, we neither knew nor cared that many honeysuckle vines were “invasive,” non-native plants that had originally been imported from their home territory in Europe or Asia as landscape plants, later going wild and displacing or choking out local woodland flowers and shrubs. What we did know, passing the knowledge down from older to younger children, was that honeysuckle blooms produced a sweet nectar that tasted really good. The true connoisseurs among us, veterans of several years of extensive trial and error, could often pick out the tastiest, juiciest blooms—yellowed flowers that had just started to wilt, but not yet dried out.
The current-day internet, our latest purveyor of both useful and useless knowledge, provides step-by-step instructions for proper honeysuckle tasting at the following site: http://www.instructables.com/id/Honeysuckle%3A-Harvesting-the-Sweet-Nectar-of-Life/, which also gifts us with additional basic plant information: “There are nearly 180 different known honeysuckle species, most native to Europe and Asia, with only about twenty indigenous to the US. Honeysuckle is most often a vine, usually growing to a max of 20 feet.”
On a recent neighborhood walk near where I now live, I found a set of honeysuckle vines. No one else was nearby. I cast aside dignity and renewed my acquaintance with this late spring/early summer treat. My skills were rusty, so the first several blossoms I picked yielded little in the way of nectar. After a while, I began to get the hang of the harvest again. Before I wandered further, I had thoroughly sweetened my day. In a few science-based online articles about what makes honeysuckle flowers so sweet, there are chemical names I can hardly pronounce. Researchers note that hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to many honeysuckle species.
I’ll leave the in-depth analysis to others, and settle for the seasonal sensation of having my tongue “invaded” by honeysuckle sweetness.
Statues and Time Immemorial —by Jinny Batterson
Growing up in our long-generation family, I sometimes would hear an older relative talk about an attitude, custom, or monument that had been around since time immemorial. I figured the expression meant a very long time ago; rarely did I wonder what attitude, custom, or monument was under discussion. As we approach this year’s Memorial Day, I’ve thought a good bit more about what we memorialize, what we don’t, and how an aspect of human life continues to be remembered, even into “time immemorial.”
The past year or two has seen a lot of controversy about prominent memorials to Confederate soldiers and politicians. Most of these memorials were erected well after the end of the American civil war, not as a tribute to the sacrifices of ordinary soldiers, whose graves generally were elsewhere. Rather, the statues were strategically placed to reinforce Jim Crow segregation and to buttress attitudes and institutions of white supremacy.
During the decades when I lived in Richmond, Virginia, a former capital of the Confederacy, I got frequent exposure to several equestrian Confederate monuments along a mile or so stretch of expensive vintage homes on tree-lined Monument Avenue: J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson sat astride their mounts at prominent intersections. Near where I currently live, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is embroiled in controversy about the removal or contextualization of “Silent Sam,” a Confederate memorial statue erected in a highly visible location on that campus in 1913, funded jointly by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and UNC alumni.
Back when Stuart, Lee, Jackson, and Silent Sam were installed on their pedestals, I hadn’t been born yet, but I was around when Richmond debated placing a statue of African-American tennis hero and humanitarian Arthur Ashe along Monument a bit further west. After substantial controversy about the erection and placement of the Ashe statue, Richmond’s City Council eventually approved a Monument Avenue location. Sited at the corner of Roseneath Road, the statue was unveiled in 1996 on what would have been Ashe’s 53rd birthday. Ashe has no horse, but is standing on his own two feet, holding aloft a tennis racket in one hand and a set of books in the other. A group of four children gesture eagerly toward him. Ashe had given permission for the casting of his likeness shortly before he died in 1993 of complications from a blood-transfusion-acquired AIDS infection.
During recent decades, statues of several former dictatorial leaders, including Lenin, Stalin, Moammar Qaddafi, and Saddam Hussein, have been toppled or destroyed as their regimes or dominance came to an end. Will any of these leaders be remembered centuries or millennia from now? Will they instead share a fate outlined in Shelley’s romantic poem about a fallen monument to Ozymandias, “king of kings”?:
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
If, eons from now, earthlings continue to create and honor statues, my bets for meaningful reminders are not on the cruel or despotic, but rather on heroes of sportsmanship and learning like Arthur Ashe.
Ladders and Circles —by Jinny Batterson
On a recent Sunday morning, our congregation sang “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” an adaptation of a 19th century African-American spiritual, in a service about accountability. Even though the word “accountability” has been mouthed by those in positions of power for more than a human generation—holding teachers accountable for students’ performance, holding office holders accountable for appropriate sexual conduct, and so on—many of our current social, political, and environmental structures are not accountable, either to human or to planetary well-being. If I understood the hymn’s relevance, its implication was that our society has failed to provide needed ladders for those in poverty or distress to climb their way out, or even to reach an escape ladder at all. Our minister urged us to consider both personal and societal changes to bring our behavior into closer alignment with our professed values of human dignity and worth. Later in the day, I got a second dose of “accountability audit” from social activist William Barber II, who came to Raleigh to speak at a different congregation as part of the intensification of a nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. Barber combined individuals’ stories of living in poverty with statistics about our worsening wealth imbalances, war profiteering, voter suppression, and degradation of the natural environment. He highlighted the huge gaps between what we profess as a nation founded on the principle of a “more perfect union” and the ways many of our current institutions operate.
Through both morning and evening church, I kept the image of ladders in mind. But I also remembered a different shape. In our UU hymnal, “Singling the Living Tradition,” we’ve frequently borrowed hymn tunes from other Christian traditions and tweaked the lyrics to make the language less full of “almighty God” talk and more inclusive of the glorious spectrum of humanity. During the morning’s service, I noticed that on the page facing the hymn about Jacob’s ladder was a more recent addition, “We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle.”
Most of my life I’ve been uncomfortable with a strictly hierarchical view of the world. Of course when I was a child, I knew that my parents were nearly always in charge of our family, but as I grew up, I increasingly found that overly general mentions of ladders and of “higher” or “lower” could set my teeth on edge. I often prefer images of circles, where power and movement can flow in many directions—in, out, up, down, right, left, forward, back. I have yet to come up with any consistent long-term way to balance my needs for hierarchies and fairly fixed structures with my needs to remain fluid and adaptable—the balance shifts over time. Implying a gendered component from the names “Jacob” and “Sarah” in the facing hymns would be imperfect and incomplete—the term “pecking order,” after all, refers to hens, not to roosters.
Most of those in positions of formal leadership struggle with issues of hierarchy and ladders, I believe. Aside from pressing a “big button” and potentially blowing the planet to pieces, or firing advisors who are perceived as insufficiently loyal, our national chief executive has few powers as an individual. He/she must rely on the acquiescence of others to carry out his/her commands. He/she must cajole, inspire, and/or bully others into doing his/her bidding.
Those in circles of various kinds face other challenges—determining who is in charge of what can be confusing. Diffuse power can lead to overall powerlessness. Yet in many ways circles are more resilient. The absence or death of a single member, or even of a proportion of the overall membership, does not necessarily destroy a circle. Often new members step in to fill the gaps. Circle members learn a variety of skills, so that leadership can rotate with little decrease in overall effectiveness. A different hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” written in the early 20th century and frequently adapted since, speaks to the long life of circles.
So let’s celebrate ladders and work to make them more accessible to all who need them, but let’s not forget that circles are important, too.
Birthing a Book —by Jinny Batterson
As I near the May 1, 2018 official launch date of my first-ever published book, Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, I’ve been pondering the similarities and differences between creating a child and creating a book. Both are exciting; both can be scary at times; both involve some pain and expense; both require time and energy.
The specifics, however, can vary. The gestation period for a baby falls within a somewhat predictable range, typically 7-9 months. For a book, the period from first inkling to publication can be as short as a few months or as long as most of a lifetime. The process of going from initial cells/initial words to baby or book nearly always involves a certain amount of risk and uncertainty. There are times in both processes when I’ve been uncomfortable, when I’ve questioned why I ever decided to embark on this adventure in the first place, when what I’ve wanted most of all is for the “pregnancy” to reach completion.
In both types of birthing, I’ve benefited immensely from the help and advice of those with broader, deeper experience than mine. It is only half jokingly that I’ve complimented one of my editors on her midwifing skills. Again, some differences: the labor pains for a book are less physical, but can still be intense—for a couple of weeks now, I’ve often awakened in the middle of the night with a stray thought about one more person I’d like to alert to the book’s impending arrival. I’ve had pangs of regret for not completing the publication process sooner, so some of those who’ve already left the planet might have had a chance to view the finished product.
So now, as my mom used to say once she’d completed the dress rehearsal for a musical or theater production, it’s all over but the shouting. What sort of world will greet my China memoir? What changes in global politics and natural environment will Where the Great Wall Ends experience as it “grows up”? These are factors beyond my control.
I can only hope that I’ve written as true an account as I can of my experiences, and that some of what I’ve lived through will help generate greater understanding in the lives of my readers. Happy birthday, book!
Exceeding Expectations: Three Score Years and Eleven —by Jinny Batterson
My birthday happens this month. As I age, the years tend to go by more and more quickly. Overall, it’s been a marvelous ride so far.
Having a spring birthday is a quirk of my arrival on earth for which I’m very grateful—spring is generally such a hopeful time of year. Most of my birthdays have long since slipped out of memory, though a few have associations that persist:
—my 5th birthday, the first after the birth of my younger sister, when my mother staged outdoor scavenger games in our small yard. The weather was wonderfully warm and sunny; several friends came to enjoy prizes and homemade birthday cake. For one glorious day, I didn’t have to share the limelight with the cute, dimpled new baby.
—my 11th birthday, the final year I spent in the cramped first house our family lived in, before moving to a much larger house that summer.
—my 21st birthday, when I was nearly finished college and got engaged over my birthday weekend to my future husband.
—my 30th birthday, when I was pregnant with our younger child, and we staged an “over the hill party” with friends and colleagues.
—my 50th birthday, when our children were both grown and living elsewhere and I treated myself to a decadent chocolate cake.
At the time I was born, between 1940 and 1950, life expectancy for white women was between 67 and 72 years, increasing each decade. The small liberal arts school I was attending when my twentieth birthday arrived had a college springtime tradition: attaching short poems to a weeping cherry tree in front of an ivy-festooned brick classroom building. Often a handwritten copy of A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” was among the offerings:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Back then three score years and ten seemed impossibly old—older even than my parents, aunts, and uncles in our long-generation family.
In the part of North Carolina where I now live, early spring days in 2018 have seen more than one frosting of actual snow, so warmer days and cherry trees hung with blooms are most welcome. In our woodlands, white-blossomed cherries share center stage with white and pink dogwoods plus redbud trees whose smallish flowers are more pink than red. Along major roads and interstates this year, an extensive array of big, blowsy lavender wisteria clusters has draped adjacent trees.
And I’ve had the chance to watch the “woodland ride” now for threescore years and eleven—a wonderful bonus. Happy springtime, y’all, wherever you spend it!