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!
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.
Layered Reality —by Jinny Batterson
Sometimes, despite fairly consistent efforts to broaden my circle of friends and acquaintances, it seems as if I’m stuck in an ever-shrinking bubble, quarantined in my own little “liberal-urban-retiree” silo. Recently I had a chance to spend a week with our out-of-town grandchildren, exploring a couple of stunning U.S. national parks via outdoor hikes. My guess is that our son and daughter-in-law had carefully coached the kids to humor grandma and grandpa by not overusing their “screens.” We watched a fair number of breakfast-time morning cartoons, but mostly we wandered outside, free from earbuds, television, or other screens. Cell phone coverage was minimal or nonexistent.
Much of our political and cultural life these days, including mine when not hiking with the grandkids, gets mediated by screens. Screen life can often seem tasteless, colorless, instantaneous, disconnected. I realize I’m getting old and slow, but I doubt this is the only cause for our disconnectedness.
I remember a story my rural sister told me. Typically apolitical, Sal had gotten sufficiently exercised in our recent hyper-charged society that she decided to become more politically active. In 2018, she campaigned for a candidate for U.S. congress in the Maryland district where she lives. She and I live in mirrored political entities—both North Carolina, where I live, and Maryland, where Sal resides, are “poster child states” for extreme political gerrymandering. I live in one of a few districts carved out to the benefit of NC’s minority party (in this case, the Democrats). Sal lives in the one district in Maryland that has been allocated to its minority party (in this case, the Republicans). Though our NC polling sites during early voting and on election day fairly consistently have longish lines, the precinct where Sal stood with her candidate’s literature wasn’t busy. Dribbles of voters came by the area where campaigners were allowed, leaving lots of down time. My sister is nothing if not gregarious, so before long she was talking with the two campaigners for the majority party candidate. Carefully sidestepping the merits of their respective candidates, Sal probed for possible common ground. Pretty soon, the three of them were discussing the uncertainty of sale prices for soybeans; the availability of rental drones for quicker, more thorough analysis of field conditions; the best area bulls for improving dairy herds; the impact of changes in agricultural regulations on small-scale farmers. Although there were certainly political opinions where the three of them likely disagreed, they found a good many areas where their interests overlapped and they could be both civil and informative. Their reality was layered with interspersed agreement and disagreement.
Last year about this time, I was in an area of rural France where human habitation goes back hundreds of thousands of years. I got a tour of an archeological site with over a dozen layers of excavation, ranging from about 40,000 to about 15,000 years ago. Now inactive, the site had been carefully dug during a human generation or so, some layers yielding little in the way of artifacts or information, others rich with both. I believe we need to remember that our social and political realities are rarely either/or, much more often layered with both conflict and agreement. Likewise, we are both independent and interdependent. Please let’s take a bit more effort toward excavating beyond the tweets and the sound bites—our neighbors may be more layered than we know.
Send Me an Owl? —by Jinny Batterson
A few weeks ago I may have had a close encounter with an owl. One misty spring morning, I was returning down the entryway to our small condo complex when suddenly something came out of the adjacent woods and hit the left side of my head with considerable force. I’d been strolling along, looking down at the pavement, daydreaming. I was not ready for something to whack the side of my head. It didn’t knock me down, but threw me off balance enough so it took a few seconds to regain my footing. Checking the area of impact for injuries, I found a small gash in my left earlobe, a larger scratch just behind my left ear. Once I’d recovered enough to look around, I couldn’t find anything evident that might have caused the jolt. No earthbound animals were in the area. What had hit me was too heavy to have been a tree-launched squirrel.
Once I got home, I did a little internet research. The phrase “owl strikes” showed up for occasional collisions between owls and humans. Some had occurred in the Atlanta area in recent years. Several morning joggers there had endured successive head-to-owl collisions with late-to-bed owls. When I later puzzled over my incident with local friends who’ve lived in our area longer than I have, they mentioned a possible owl incident that had figured into the aftermath of a Durham, North Carolina murder trial. In a high-profile 2003 case, a well-known author was accused of murdering his wife on a chill winter evening. Though initially convicted, Michael Peterson maintained his innocence and was eventually released after the charge was reduced to man-slaughter. A recent Netflix episode caused a resurrection of the theory that Peterson might in fact have been innocent—the culprit instead an owl who attacked a somewhat tipsy Mrs. Peterson and caused a bloody fall: ( https://www.wired.com/story/the-staircase-netflix-owl-theory/).
My niece, nephews and grandchildren, whatever other generational labels have been applied to them, are all part of a “Harry Potter generation.” Prior to a recent visit with the grandkids, I made my way through the first book of the Potter series. It’s a good read, about a young boy who’s been orphaned and doesn’t fit in with his guardians’ family. Harry eventually finds his way to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he finds kindred spirits and discovers that he’s a wizard, albeit one in need of considerable training. One of the features of Harry’s life at Hogwarts, where much of the series action takes place, is the use of owls to carry messages—a nice live touch, in contrast with the “real” world where communication can seem more and more mechanical. If you’re at Hogwarts hoping someone will communicate with you over a distance, you’ll probably request that they “send you an owl.” One of the members of our family’s younger generation has a plush model owl she’s named “Hedwig” in honor of Harry’s owl. With the grandchildren, we’ve watched parts of several Harry Potter films, including at least one with a message-bearing owl. The actual message delivery must have occurred off-screen or happened while I was dozing, something grandmas do occasionally.
If what hit me earlier this year was in fact an owl, I’m grateful for the non-lethal outcome of the encounter. The calls of owls echo some evenings in nearby woods, one owl in particular sounding out a cadence that mimics “Who cooks for you-u-u-u-u?” If a Hogwarts-style message ever reaches me, I hope its delivery owl will come gently, landing nearby but not on me, and leaving no accompanying injury.
The Durability of Sisterhood —by Jinny Batterson
Over the past several weeks, I’ve attended three “women mostly” events—an NAACP breakfast fundraiser and celebration of that group’s NC mother/woman of the year, the annual meeting of our local chapter of the League of Women Voters, and the 50th reunion of my class from then-women’s-college Randolph College. At each event, there were a few men, as official escorts, unofficial companions, or male affiliates, but the focus was mainly on us women. I’d forgotten how good it can feel to be surrounded by other females.
The NC NAACP celebration was the first formal NAACP event I’d attended. Not knowing anyone to tag along with, I went alone. I expected to be a minority at the event—this proved true. The few other white women, none of whom I knew, seemed more connected and more engaged than I felt. The venue was local to Raleigh, but contestants and their supporters came from nearly twenty NAACP chapters throughout the state. Not realizing the flexibility of the event’s scheduling, I’d accepted an invitation to a lunch meeting in a different part of town, so missed the slightly delayed keynote talk by recently named Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Cheri Beasley. Over the part of the event I did attend, I learned that the NAACP has been holding such annual celebrations since the 1950’s.
The LWV Wake County annual meeting had a generally paler audience and was held on a weeknight. Food was higher priced. There was a cash bar. I knew some of the “old stalwarts,” but was pleased to notice younger faces new to me. One older male member I knew, attending without his equally activist spouse, spent a good bit of time talking with me. I wondered if he felt something of an outsider, like my reaction at the NAACP breakfast. The event was tightly scheduled. The business at hand—election of new officers, committee reports, financial updates—was quickly dispatched, assisted by paper agendas. Dinner conversations were pleasant, non-confrontational, and generally apolitical in this non-partisan organization. The Wake county LWV had been founded in 1920, the same year women got the right to vote in national elections. After a rocky period during the late 1930’s and 1940’s, the chapter reconstituted itself in 1950 and has been active ever since.
Then there was the Randolph reunion. I arrived near the beginning of the three-day weekend’s festivities to find a familiar, still beautiful, mostly empty campus. A good student when I’d attended what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in the late 1960’s, I’d nevertheless been anything but a social standout. A foreign language major, I didn’t contribute to campus publications. I wasn’t a horsewoman or an athlete in any sport. I did sing in the glee club, but held no campus leadership positions and rarely attended campus-wide events. I’d felt at graduation that I’d made it through, but would likely not maintain much connection with the school. I wondered how fish-out-of-water I’d feel at a reunion of this institution that had been founded in 1891 exclusively to promote the education of young women, but evolved a lot over its recent existence. About a decade ago, faced with declining enrollment and difficulties attracting highly qualified women to a small, single-sex liberal arts school in the U.S. south, the trustees made a wrenching decision to become a coeducational institution. Alums of the most recent reunion class (those who graduated in 2014) are a rainbow mix of genders and backgrounds, though both the school’s student body and faculty are majority female.
As more and more members of my former class gradually filtered in, I was surprised at how many women I recognized and felt connected with: still-active, still-engaged, still-vibrant septuagenarians whose energy was palpable. This was a tribe I could feel part of! Of course we engaged in some mutual bragging—about further educational achievements, children, life partners, careers, travels, awards, humanitarian endeavors, whatever. Mostly, though, we shared stories based on the values we’d developed during a special time and place together in a supportive environment, values that continue to illuminate our choices and preferences fifty years after graduation.
With so much travel in my recent past and near future, I’m temporarily traveled out. I’ll miss this Sunday afternoon’s Charlotte-area reunion of a part of my biological family that I’ve become better acquainted with since I moved to North Carolina: the Rea clan. I’ll especially miss the possibility of spending time together with three sisters of my dad’s generation, related to me through my grandmother’s baby brother Zeb. As far as I know, none of the Rea sisters are famous, but they’ve each lived long, fruitful lives, handling multiple challenges with quiet grace. I hope to have later chances to reconnect with Virginia, Betsy, and Judy. Now in their 80’s and 90’s, they have maintained a durable sisterhood through thick and thin.
So to sisters everywhere—stay active, stay engaged, stay vibrant. Avoid excluding anyone if you possibly can. And most of all, stay connected!
Uncle John –by Jinny Batterson
It’s been so long ago now that I barely remember
The annual childhood visits to Arlington’s cemetery,
To put flowers on the gravesite where your family
Eventually had you re-interred after you’d fallen
In Germany near the end of World War II.
Once I’d grown older, I asked for pictures of
What you’d looked like in life–you were blond, like
The stern dad whose name is included in yours.
You’d volunteered early for the military, convinced
That the Third Reich posed a grave danger to
Global civilization, though equally so, you thought,
Did rampant nationalism and materialism. In one of the
Pamphlets that your middle sister had printed in your
Honor and memory, you opined, “Would you die for
Your bathtub?” Perhaps somewhat germane, as I sit
In air-conditioned comfort while soldiers in distant deserts
Sweat out yet another year of armed conflict.
You were an inveterate scribbler, like this niece
You never met in life. An eldest son, one of just two
To survive to adulthood, you died in Europe a month
Shy of your thirty-fourth birthday, at about the same
Time your younger brother was among those not killed
When a kamikaze pilot damaged the aircraft carrier
Where he served in the Pacific. Dad came home and
Rarely talked about his service. He sired four children of the
Family’s next generation. In life, the two of you had argued
Passionately about politics, about human nature, but had
Worked and traveled together before war sent you to opposite
Ends of the earth. Dad had the longer physical life, and
He passed along some of your ideals along with the family genes.
You loved the outdoors, spent time on the family farm,
Went camping with friends–an heirloom snapshot shows you
Holding a coffee pot, with an improvised clothes line
Tied to a tent in the background. It’s somewhat fitting
That what physically remains of you lies among many others
On a grassy incline, partially shaded by trees, in a large area
Of “section 12” between Grant and Eisenhower Drives.
This year I won’t make it physically to your gravesite.
My worsening eyesight cannot totally decipher the
Inscription on the virtual image of your headstone
That I now can pull up thanks to a website and the
Volunteers who maintain it. Our country and others
Still engage far too often in “shooting wars,” both foreign
And domestic. Our technology now allows us to engage also
In vicious foreign and domestic cyber wars, equally dangerous.
Please rest well, Uncle John. Know that your survivors
Are doing our best to continue your legacy of service.