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!
Elders, Natural Debt, Resilience… —by Jinny Batterson
Substantial numbers of my cohort of aging “leading edge boomers” have led charmed lives up to now. Medical advances have permitted us to live longer, with fewer health problems than our forebears’ generations. Technical advances and social policies have helped bring increased economic prosperity to those of us at upper income levels, especially those with inherited wealth and/or advanced formal educations. Yet lots of us are uneasy or depressed. What went wrong?
As we came of age in the 1960’s, ecologists continued issuing warnings about the impacts of unbridled “growth” on the natural environments that underly all living beings, including humans. Partly due to youthful protests, governments in some economically advanced countries began passing laws to curb or criminalize the most visible environmental abuses. Cleanup funds were established. Our skies became clearer, our rivers no longer stank. Also partly due to youthful protests, American involvement in a costly war in Vietnam came to an official end. We were told there was a “peace dividend” and it was safe to start raising families. We gradually left the streets for the suburbs.
Outsourcing and automation removed more and more routine, grimy or dangerous jobs to places most of us did not see. Occasional spot disasters like the Bhopal chemical release in India in 1984, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in what was then the USSR in 1986, Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana/Mississippi in 2005, or the Fukushima tsunami/power plant disaster in Japan in 2011 briefly caught our notice, but mostly we did not pay attention. Such difficulties would likely never touch us, safely ensconced in our cushy American suburban cocoons.
Our cocoons are getting pretty toasty, abetted by record heat waves, wildfires, and tropical storms. The statistics are telling: In 2018, the U.S. suffered fourteen weather-related billion-plus dollar disasters. Bills for hurricanes Florence and Michael, already over $49 billion, are still coming in. Out west, a record-breaking wildfire season did more than $24 billion worth of damage. Here in North Carolina, I lived through my first 100 degree October day, after a record-setting dry, hot September generated a new weather label: “flash drought.”
Fiscal conservatives have long warned of the dangers of burgeoning public debt—the U.S. national debt recently topped 22 trillion dollars, or about $56,000 for every American. A friend and former colleague raises concerns about the hidden or belatedly recorded costs of “technical debt” (see http://techdebtpolicy.com) such as recovery from previous over-use of asbestos, whose fire-resistant properties made it desirable as an insulator before its human health impacts were fully understood. I’m most concerned about “natural debt,” a term gradually gaining currency for our drawing down of natural resources and our using our planet as a dumping ground, as in a set of posts by an India-based group, downtoearth.org.in.
It’s not too hard to see why natural debt is a growing concern, one that has many of us elders wakeful on October nights when the air conditioning is still on. Links likely exist between natural debt and increasing instances of human protest and conflict across all parts of the political spectrum and all regions of the globe.
People my age are closer to the ends of our lives than its beginnings. Our worst nightmares reflect the distress we’ve caused other humans and the natural world we depend on. If our imaginings goad us toward useful action rather than just handwringing, this is not necessarily a bad thing. By now, many of us have bounced back individually from financial, health, and/or family challenges. Beyond individual or family, though, we need to use the rest of our physical lives to help build more species-wide resilience. If we are to claim any prerogatives as an “intelligent species,” we’ll need to get both our individual and collective acts more thoroughly together. A compendium from our youth, The Last Whole Earth Catalog, said it on a back cover, showing a NASA photo of Earth taken from space: “We can’t put it together. It is together.” Together with or without humans, our choice.
The PRC at 70 —by Jinny Batterson
She’s an impressive dowager,
A real rags to riches story–
Rising from the ashes of
A brutal civil war,
After a century of quasi-colonial
Oppression, she turned inward
And recreated herself.
A few convulsions temporarily
Sidelined her progress,
But now she stands proud–
The world’s greatest factory floor,
Flooding our shelves with goods
We couldn’t have imagined
A scant generation ago.
Of course she suffers from arthritis—
Twinges in her toes.
At her other extremity,
A bowl shaped desert
That refuses to be reeducated.
No pigeons or kites flock or weave
Above the scrubbed multitudes
As tanks again roll down Chang An
Avenue. Onlookers wave
May she be wise and gracious
In old age. May her poets
Sleep securely in well-thatched
Cottages. Happy Birthday!
Children’s Crusades and Adult Enablers —by Jinny Batterson
Early in the 13th century, during the summer of 1212, a pilgrimage known as the “Childrens’ Crusade” headed for the Holy Land. Many details about the crusade are disputed. It seems likely that few, if any, of the participants reached Jerusalem or anywhere close. According to information in the lead paragraph of the relevant Wikipedia article:
“The traditional narrative is likely conflated from some factual and mythical events which include the visions by a French boy and a German boy, an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity, bands of children marching to Italy, and children being sold into slavery. Many children were tricked by merchants and sailed over to what they thought were the holy lands but, in reality, were slave markets.”
(reference the year 1212 to clarify your search at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Children%27s_Crusade)
Estimates of the number of participants are in the tens of thousands. It’s not clear what roles adults at the time may have played in assisting the young crusaders.
A more recent “childrens’ crusade” took place in Birmingham, Alabama during May, 1963, when over a thousand students trained in non-violent protest techniques left their schools and marched toward downtown Birmingham to protest Jim Crow laws and ongoing racial discrimination. Their actions and the vicious responses of Birmingham’s law enforcement officials “went viral” over 1960’s-era media, prompting outrage that helped prepare the way for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
In the past year or so, we’ve seen the birth of two modern youth crusades: one concerning the U.S. epidemic of gun violence, the other spreading awareness of the need for concerted action in the face of the worsening global impacts of climate change.
After a mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2018, survivors and their families held a candlelight vigil. Several students then sat up for most of the night hatching a social media campaign to help reduce gun violence. Their efforts coalesced around the hashtag #NeverAgain, which has morphed into a national movement advocating for changes in gun laws to help reduce the American gun violence epidemic. In March, 2018, over a million people showed up at events nationwide during a “March for Our Lives.” Lobbying and activism continue. Though legislation at the national level remains stalled, since the Parkland shooting over twenty states and the District of Columbia have strengthened gun violence prevention measures: “red flag laws” to temporarily remove guns from the hands of individuals in crisis, enhanced background checks, waiting periods for gun purchases.
In August, 2018, teenager Greta Thunberg began sitting outside the Swedish Parliament building holding a sign that said “Skolstrejk för climate” (“School strike for climate”). Over time, her actions drew attention and followers. On March 15, 2019, school strikes, urging adults to take responsibility and reduce climate change, took place in over 2,000 cities worldwide. An estimated 1.4 million pupils from around the world participated. On September 20, 2019, the school strike again went global, with an estimated 4 million children and adults participating in events just before the start of a U.N. Climate Summit in New York City.
In my youth, crusades centered around bringing an end to a war in Vietnam that caused huge human and environmental devastation. Controversy also surrounded the investigation into the actions of a sitting U.S. President who had attempted to “stack the deck” in the 1972 presidential election. Both issues were polarizing and sparked big protests. Afterwards, many of us got off the streets, took jobs, raised families, and left national and global issues mostly to those in positions of putative power. Yet we did not abandon our ideals or our activism, though its form may have changed. We passed on a sense of fairness, of respect for the planet, to our children and grandchildren. We continued to lobby our elected representatives on issues of concern. We changed our personal habits to be more responsible global citizens.
Those of us who are elders now can take heart from examples of elders and adults who were not the visible images of youth crusades, but who nonetheless furthered efforts toward human rights and planetary citizenship. One elder I hold up is Juanita Abernathy, a civil rights pioneer. Along with other brave African-Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, Ms. Abernathy played a behind-the-scenes role in organizing and furthering a 1955-56 bus boycott to get respectful treatment for the black ridership that provided most of the profits to the then-segregated bus system. She used a typewriter and carbon copies to spread initial word about the boycott in a pre-internet age. As the boycott continued, she helped organize carpools and alternative transportation to get workers to their jobs and householders to needed shopping. For decades, she worked quietly to advance civil rights. She recently died at age 88. Another (s)hero is Rachel Carson, who died much too soon—a little shy of her 57th birthday. She battled the pesticide establishment of her day along with metastatic cancer to produce her signature work, environmental blockbuster Silent Spring, published on this day in 1962.
The Ripple Effects of Gratitude —by Jinny Batterson
Lately I’ve been more aware than usual of how much I enjoy being on the receiving end of a “thank you.” Having been raised partly by an old-fashioned Southern grandmother, I got childhood exposure to the notion that you should do stealthy good deeds for which thanks were a surprise you could then disarmingly dismiss.
“Oh, it was nothing,” you could say with a shy smile, inwardly puffed up but too “refined” to openly accept the thanks offered.
Most of my current friends and acquaintances are wise to this blushing maiden/aw-shucks approach, so I’ve gradually gotten better at replying with a simple “you’re welcome.”
Perhaps it’s the somewhat brusque and derogatory tone of much of our public discourse these days, or the proliferation of mechanistic responses (the “press 1” phenomenon is often just the tip of the iceberg). Perhaps it’s a feature of aging. Whatever, I really thrill to a simple “thank you” after I’ve attempted to do something nice for someone.
I’ve also tried to get better at thanking others who do nice things for me, from the shop clerk who spends a little extra time explaining the features of the new gadget I’m not very good at using, to the husband who takes out the trash without being asked, to the bus driver who lets me know the closest stop to my downtown Raleigh appointment. The most recent time I rode the bus, I noticed that passengers who got off before me often thanked the driver, so I did, too. It felt nearly as good as being on the receiving end of gratitude.
Where I’ve noticed others’ gratitude the most is at a mostly African-American church I’ve attended intermittently for the past several years, trying to be inoffensive as a paler pew-sitter than the other church goers. One of the older men often starts the service with a litany of all the ways the Lord has blessed him, starting with awakening him that morning. Usually I’m not part of the “thank you, Jesus” crowd, but I know this guy’s material circumstances and medical conditions are likely a lot more difficult than mine. If he can start his day with a “thank you,” then maybe I can, too.
How Not to Commemorate 9/11 —by Jinny Batterson
Yesterday there were many formal commemorations of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in many parts of the U.S. Anna Allison, who perished on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, was someone I’d met only a few days before at a small-scale conference. After she returned home from the conference, Anna deferred for a day a flight to California to visit a client so that she could spend a little more time with her husband and step-daughter in Massachusetts. Tracing back through some of the memorials to her, I came across the following appreciation from her widower:
“Every day was a new opportunity for her. Because there were new opportunities, there was always hope of doing something good. That’s the way she lived her life.”
I hope that Anna would be pleased with some of the service projects that have sprung up around the country as part of 9/11 commemorations, but I have my doubts that she’d have been happy at a couple of yesterday’s events.
First, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a change in asylum rules proposed by the Trump administration to prevent asylum seekers from entering the U.S. through other countries without initially seeking asylum in those countries. Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented, with Sotomayor writing a rebuke to both the court and the nation:
“Once again the Executive Branch has issued a rule that seeks to upend longstanding practices regarding refugees who seek shelter from persecution. Although this Nation has long kept its doors open to refugees — and although the stakes for asylum seekers could not be higher — the Government implemented its rule without first providing the public notice and inviting the public input generally required by law.”
Closer to my current home, the North Carolina House of Representatives used the absence of the Governor and many of its Democratic members at 9/11 commemorations to pass an override of a previously vetoed state budget along partisan lines, with just over half of House members present. Opponents of the override cried foul, saying they had been told no votes would be taken on this national day of commemoration and mourning.
I continue to mourn the loss of fine people like Anna. Even more, I mourn the loss of the sense that as a nation, we are capable of living up to our ideals. We can and must do better.
The Mixed Legacies of 9/11 —by Jinny Batterson
Recently I had a chance to host a set of international guests—three generations whose eldest member had grown up in newly-independent India as a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. As she was about to leave our house, Ms. Mehta gave me a small booklet entitled “Hope or Terror: Gandhi and the other 9/11.” According to the booklet, on an earlier September 11, in 1906, Gandhi had launched the “satyagraha” movement that eventually helped lead to India’s independence in 1947.
The booklet’s author, long term American peace activist Michael Nagler, spends most of the pamphlet giving examples of non-violent movements that have achieved worthwhile social aims with a minimum of bloodshed. His pamphlet was published in 2006, just five years after the 2001 terrorist airplane hijackings, destruction and loss of life that have created lingering unhealed physical and psychic wounds in so many Americans, both military and civilian. Nagler points to traits needed to participate more fully in satyagraha-like efforts, to use “integrative power” rather than “threat power.” So what can we learn from previous satyagraha struggles that may be relevant in 2019?
First, we can become familiar with the term “satyagraha,” which has several English translations—it can be rendered as “soul force,” as “love in action,” as “clinging to truth.” Many of us who have heard the term associate it primarily with Gandhi and his “salt march,” a long-distance 1930 walk to publicize and challenge the unfairness of British taxes on salt, a necessary nutrient that washes up freely on some of India’s beaches. Americans may be more familiar with the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose commitment to the related concept of non-violence was partially inspired by his study of Gandhi’s life and methods.
Nagler points out that there are two prongs to satyagraha efforts—one a resistance to coercion, the other a creation of alternative forms of organization that are freer and less coercive. Most of us are likely to be more attuned to one prong than the other, so we need to partner with individuals and groups that are more highly skilled in the other prong. Otherwise, we can too often confuse tactics and methods with strategies and longer-term goals.
The passage in Nagler’s booklet that I found most heartening and persuasive concerns the way that satyagraha/nonviolence works: “Nonviolence sometimes ‘works’ and always works, while by contrast, violence sometimes ‘works’ and never works.”
He explains his use of terminology this way: an action succeeds, or “works” based on its short-term, obvious effects, while it works (without quotes) in how it impacts situations and participants under the surface, producing longer-term effects that are not always obvious at the time.
I’m not sure what commemorations will occur on September 11, 2019. The lingering war in Afghanistan seems no closer to resolution; gun violence in the U.S. claims or maims too many lives; organized violence in many parts of the world dominate our headlines and media reports. Climate change can pose global challenges we often seem powerless to respond to. However, there are other actions going on, other factors at play. One was a last-minute decision to open our home for a night to a family of strangers who are strangers no longer, with an aging Indian matriarch who replanted a seed of hope.
Caramel-colored Children and Labor Day —by Jinny Batterson
In a conversation with a good friend whose tendency to wax cynical has been reinforced by some of our recent political and media trends, I heard her lament: “Maybe we’ll finally stop dissing or shooting each other when all of us are caramel-colored.”
I admit to a good bit of prejudice not supported by reality, so I did a little research on interethnic marriages and relationships, which have become increasingly common in the U.S. over the past several generations. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing interracial marriage (in the 1967 case Loving vs. Virginia), the proportion of reported interracial/interethnic marriages in the U.S. has risen dramatically. As of 2017, over one in six new marriages in the U.S. were registered between spouses of different “racial” backgrounds, while about 10% of all married couples were “mixed race.” Statistical evidence for non-marriage relationships is harder to come by, though my anecdotal experiences tell me that these are also becoming more diverse.
The 2000 census marked the first time that Americans were given an option to choose multiple racial identities, not just one. By the 2010 census, people who reported multiple races had risen substantially: 9 million census respondents chose to check two or more racial groups, a 32 percent increase from 2000. (Those who reported a single race rose by 9.2 percent over the same interval.)
My extended family has at least one multi-ethnic marriage and two young adults who could choose to check more than one “race” on a census form. I’ve not delved very far into how my nephews choose to identify themselves and how this has impacted their lives; my hope is that any prejudices against them are waning as “mixed race” children become more and more common.
Intellectually I know that the whole notion of “race” is more cultural than biological. Differences in skin pigmentation bear little relationship to variations in DNA and to other supposedly ingrained characteristics. Still, like many, I’ve been socialized to view a person’s skin color as somehow indicative of their other characteristics. Not until I’d lived next to an elegant “black” neighbor for a decade did she explain to me that she did not much like to dance and had little sense of rhythm.
Labor Day is a day set aside to honor the contributions of laborers to the overall good of American society. Those of us who are “white” (and generally privileged to do most of our labor with heads rather than hands or backs) are beginning, reluctantly, awkwardly, to enter into conversations about the labor of “non-whites” forced or coerced into doing much of the work of building this country and society. Too often we continue to dishonor their and our heritage through sentimentalizing versions of U.S. history and society that leave out or minimize the injustices and cruelty that helped and help “make America great.”
There is much work still to be done. Let’s remember, this Labor Day, to keep laboring toward a more equitable America where all labor is valued, whatever the skin color of the laborer.
Coming (Back) from Away —by Jinny Batterson
This year I spent much of the summer outside the U.S., on an extended trip to parts of England with my long-term husband Jim, a long-ago English literature student. Our roughly six-week trip included several weeks of leisurely walks through parts of the English countryside, with a two-week interval mid-trip in a rented apartment in London. When we arrived in London by train from the much smaller city of Bath, this financial and cultural global capital seemed noisy, diverse, crowded, especially at first. To exacerbate the situation, partway through our first week we experienced several days of the heat wave that had been broiling much of Europe. Gradually, we adapted. We learned to relish London’s many green spaces, to marvel at the tidal Thames just outside our apartment windows. We also went to shows, lots of shows.
Jim had scoured the internet to find a balance of venues and genres. We saw a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V in a replica of the Globe Theater. We attended a stand-up show at a small comedy club in the basement of a gay bar. We were part of an evening audience for Agatha Christie’s vintage whodunit, “The Mousetrap,” now in its 68th year. Our tickets to a reissued drama about midlife in New York City, “The Starry Messenger,” got upgraded so we were closer to the stage than our budget usually allowed. Its main character was never explicitly shown: the 1930’s building housing the Hayden Planetarium, about to be demolished in the late 1990’s when the play was set.
The performance I enjoyed most was a musical, “Come from Away,” also with a huge off-the-stage presence. Its dozen actors represented some of the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada and some of the temporary airline guests “come from ‘away’,” from off this isolated island at the eastern edge of Canada. For several days, Ganderites sheltered crew and passengers from “away” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Immediately after the attacks, U.S. air space was closed. Planes coming from Europe were diverted to Gander’s airport and sat on the tarmac there until onward flights to U.S. cities again became possible. Gander’s leaders and townspeople opened their public spaces and their homes to the refugees. They provided shelter, food, medicine, clothes, toilet facilities, and human caring, no one sure how long the visitors’ stays might last. Especially in our current political and media environment, I was grateful to be reminded of the goodness that can coexist with hatred and terror. That the performance was a musical added to my enjoyment. After a little while tuning my ear to the varying accents of British actors playing Newfies, U.S. pilots and passengers from different regions, plus passengers from many different countries, I gradually decoded the major characters’ speech patterns. From then on, the generally upbeat but not Pollyannaish plot and songs held my attention and my heart.
Returned to the U.S., once over the worst of my post-trip jet lag, I researched the origins and performance history of “Come from Away.” Created by married Canadian authors Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical had its genesis at a 2011 reunion gathering of some of the nearly 7,000 passengers who’d been temporarily stranded in Gander and the roughly 9,000 residents who’d provided exceptional hospitality under exceptionally trying circumstances. The show was first performed regionally in parts of Canada and the U.S. It opened on Broadway in 2017, in London in 2019, and currently has a global touring company. (For a brief interview with authors and director, check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m5P-Ej5svA). I even found a recent clip from Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show”— a “street theater” performance by “Come from Away”’s Broadway cast during a mid-July 2019 partial NYC electric blackout.
Coming “back home” after England, I found it at first a little strange. Why did I not have to strain to understand people’s accents? At the same time, I was glad to have had the chance to spend time physically “away.” Not everyone has the luxury of overseas tourism, I realize. Yet whatever our physical circumstances, each morning, each one of us alive comes back on waking from the “away” of our sleeping selves. May we give thanks, then take maximum advantage of such grace-given returns.
The Double Seventh Festival (Qixi) —by Jinny Batterson
The “Double Seventh” festival is celebrated in China on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year. Because the lunar calendar varies compared to the solar calendar used in most Western countries, the occurrence of the Double Seventh festival can come anywhere between late July and late August. In 2019, the festival falls on August 7. It has been called the Chinese “Valentine’s Day,” and is based on a famous legendary Chinese love tale:
Niu Lang (the Cowherd) was an orphan with a gift for nursing cattle back to health. After a god coaxed him into caring for cows in the heavens, Niu fell in love with the fairy Zhi Nu (the Weaver Girl) and the two started a family. However, the queen of heaven became jealous and caused a great river (the Milky Way) to come between them. The two were heartbroken. Their copious tears caused the queen to relent just a little—one day each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, the two were temporarily reunited.
The star Vega is often cited as representing the Weaver Girl, and the star Altair represents the Cowherd. On double seventh evening, Chinese in areas with clear skies can gaze up to see Vega and Altair shining in the Milky Way, with the star Deneb forming a symbolic bridge between them.
Similar celebrations are held throughout other countries in Asia, with variations of the legend told in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
In more urban areas of China, the Double Seventh festival has become less important, overshadowed by Valentine’s Day in February. In the countryside, celebrations are more likely to continue to exist, with young women exhibiting their skills in sewing and embroidery, and lovers exchanging gifts of flowers, chocolate, or decorative clothing.