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!
Year of the Phoenix? —by Jinny Batterson
During the shortest days of the year for the past several years, an exhibit of lighted figures has come to our town—a multi-acre display of LED-illumined silk lanterns produced in the Chinese city of Zigong, in Sichuan province. Zigong’s artisans have long crafted lanterns for Chinese festivals. In recent decades they’ve gained global fame for their beautiful handiwork. Increasing numbers of U.S. cities are using winter-dormant park spaces to mount both static and interactive displays.
Our town’s display centerpiece is near the shore of a multi-acre lake: until this year a magnificent dragon (shown in a previous post—https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/01/03/chinese-lantern-festival-an-american-version/). When I attended this year’s event just before (western) New Year, I wondered, as I wandered down a slope decorated with shapes of real and mythical animals, if the dragon had taken its accustomed place. No dragon, not this year. Instead, an equally impressive floating display of a mythical phoenix, complete with pulsing lights going from head to tail.
The night I saw the display, the weather was fairly mild for late December. Attendees from multiple cultural traditions mingled and oohed and aahed at the depiction of the fabulous bird. A little research about legends of the phoenix show the magic bird as a staple in the mythology of multiple civilizations, including Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese:
“In Asia the phoenix reigns over all the birds, and is the symbol of the Chinese Empress and feminine grace, as well as the sun and the south. The sighting of the phoenix is a good sign that a wise leader has ascended to the throne and a new era has begun. It was representative of Chinese virtues: goodness, duty, propriety, kindness and reliability. Palaces and temples are guarded by ceramic protective beasts, all led by the phoenix.” ( https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ancient-symbolism-magical-phoenix-002020; accessed 2020/03/27)
When our town’s lantern display was packed up for return to Zigong in mid-January, it was nearly time for Chinese New Year (or “Spring Festival,” celebrated in 2020 starting on January 25). The upcoming Chinese year would start another cycle of the 12-animal Chinese zodiac, which includes the dragon, along with eleven other real-life animals (in sequence: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig). So far, the phoenix has not become part of the Chinese zodiac, though the mythic bird is often considered the feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon.
Now that covid-19 has become a global pandemic, I’ve been asked, like more and more people all over the world, to self-isolate at home to reduce the speed of the virus’s spread, allowing health care systems time to adapt by “flattening the curve” of new infections. If I’m a bit bored, it’s a small price to pay for a larger social good. The next generation in our family includes two members of hospital medical staffs, and their safety is a big concern.
This enforced time at home gives me license to engage in reveries about the mythical bird. Many legends of the phoenix depict it as an extremely long-lived creature who senses approaching death, builds her own funeral pyre, and then dies in fiery majesty. Shortly afterwards, the next generation of phoenix rises from the ashes.
What might the symbol of the phoenix mean as 2020 begins with a global pandemic—the death of an overly competitive ethos and the dawning of an age of more thorough global cooperation? a rethinking of our interlocking systems of education, health care, corrections, and social welfare? a reining in of our preoccupation with material wealth? renewed reverence for the natural world that supports us all?
Let’s hope that 2020 will turn out to be a year of the phoenix.
Tulips and Pandemics –by Jinny Batterson
Doing a bit of “nature therapy” yesterday during a brief shower, and took a couple of pictures in our smallish condo complex. This morning got a link from a more media-literate friend, an opinion piece that long-term astronaut Scott Kelly had penned about coping with isolation. Very grateful that many of us have the technology to stay closer in touch via phone and internet. Glad there are parts of nature that seem little affected/afflicted by our current human pandemic. Please take care, all!
The Bus Seat Rule –by Jinny Batterson
(for Mr. McNeill on St. Patrick’s Day)
My long-ago high school chemistry teacher
Was an irascible Irishman, equally
Passionate for his subject and his students.
Not having chosen chemistry as a career,
I’ve forgotten much of the content he taught,
But I remember one teaching tool:
The bus seat rule.
As you watched a bus fill up with strangers,
He’d explain (or an atom with electrons),
You’d notice that, while any empty seats remained,
Each new passenger would gravitate to one.
Not until the last empty seat was taken
Would people begin to pair up.
Another lengthy telephone conference call.
Much time and attention devoted to
Seemingly trivial matters as other folks
Concerned themselves instead with global pandemics.
We reformers and activists can too often
Follow the bus seat rule–
Each staking out our solo seat
For saving the world.
It could be discouraging, unless we have faith
That more people are boarding the bus
Than are getting off, unless we can also imagine,
Even in trying times, a bus brimming with
Reform-minded high schoolers,
Returning from the world’s ultimate field trip,
At the exact instant when the mood shifts
From levity to “We Shall Overcome.”
God, Father (A Meditation on Forgiveness)
Some church people
Really have a nerve–
Trying to persuade me
That I should talk with you
As if it’s I that need forgiveness.
Do they take me for a total fool?
Arguably, you’re no great shakes
As a god or as a father.
For centuries, you harassed
Your chosen people, Israel,
Enslaving them in Egypt, then
Leading them into a desert wilderness,
Afterwards sending them to settle a land
Already claimed by tribes
Just as aggressive as they became.
You handled your anointed
Prophets roughly, too–
Disdain, isolation, ostracism,
Mental and physical abuse.
The crowning insult came when
You decided you should redeem
The world (not that it had
Asked for your help right then.)
You imagined sending a child
Would provide just the right touch.
So you knocked up an
Innocent girl, then bolted,
Leaving Joseph to take up
A whole shitload of slack.
As your earthly son grew
In stature and wisdom,
You encouraged him
To develop his powers
Of teaching and preaching
Separately, each of these
Talents would eventually
Have caused him trouble
With worldly authorities.
They could only prove lethal.
When the expected betrayal
Came at last, and your only
Begotten son was writhing
In agony, impaled to die
As a common criminal,
What did you do?
Just like you’d earlier
Skipped out on his mother.
And I should ask for your forgiveness?
Yet in desperate moments
That I need to experience
Before I can share
Its wonders with others,
That it takes
An overriding power to
Squelch the stern, unlovely
Authority I’ve internalized–
The first time, every time,
I know, too, that the
Power of earthly fathers,
Mirrors that forgiving strength.
I know that sufferers of
Often pray to father
Gods for release.
So I strive to pardon
Both you and myself,
To become a better parent
To the child who at times
Still cringes inside of me.
I need to leave you while I work through
Misconceptions that have fermented
In our faiths for centuries.
Time and effort will be needed to
Mature my doubts into a worthy vintage.
I’m sure I’ll want to talk with you
Again, after a while.
Until then, please take good care of yourself.
Power, Shared —by Jinny Batterson
It’s been an unsettled week for those with putative power. While various autocrats and autocrat wannabes strutted before stadium crowds, riots broke out elsewhere in the capital city of India. In the U.S., Democratic Presidential hopefuls stood behind podiums and yelled at each other. Despite posturing by those who want us to believe in their power or leadership potential, for the moment evidence points to a microscopic organism known as “Covid19,” or just “the corona virus” as the most powerful living entity on earth.
Since an initial outbreak began in central China a couple of months ago, the virus and the serious illness it can cause has spread to every continent except Antarctica, with the biggest outbreaks outside China in Italy and Iran. Over two thousand have died, with over 80,000 sickened enough to require hospitalization. Entire regions have been on lockdown, global commerce has been dented, stock markets have plunged.
U.S. media attention has also focussed on former media mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted in New York of rape and sexual assault. He’s facing a prospective prison sentence of at least five years, as pundits weigh the significance of his conviction for other victims of sexual assault. Future Weinstein appeals and trials loom.
Meantime, this year’s Black History Month is drawing to a close. It seems likely that our current national powers that be will do their best to ignore it. Meanwhile, here in North Carolina, early voting for next Tuesday’s March 3 primary election will end along with February on Saturday, “leap day.”
In American politics, it is a recurring mantra that the power of the ballot is supreme. Struggles to gain and exercise voting rights have ebbed and flowed throughout our history. History reminds us that the oppressed will continue to use both overt and covert means to subvert the systems oppressing them and to gain access to power. History teaches that no solitary or absolute power can last forever.
A bit before the current corona virus outbreak, news outlets in early 2020 covered U.S. and European approval of a vaccine against the ebola virus, which had caused a major epidemic in western Africa in 2014. An article traced the international cooperation and lucky connections that capped generations of work by scientists and public health workers across three continents and at least a generation to create and distribute the vaccine (https://www.statnews.com/2020/01/07/inside-story-scientists-produced-world-first-ebola-vaccine/). Many of those involved in the project gained little in fortune or fame, but simply believed in what was to them a worthwhile cause. They helped produce another tool for the public health response to any current or future ebola outbreak.
So, when we bother to pay attention, recent weeks may also remind us of the immense shared power of a voluntary, uncoerced “yes.”
American Democracy: Listening to Two Georges —by Jinny Batterson
Back before most holidays were on Mondays, we celebrated George Washington’s birthday each year on February 22. Though the fable about young Georgie chopping down the cherry tree and then owning up to his misdeed is likely more legend than truth, it is quite true that our first national President could easily have been re-elected in 1796 and chose not to run for another term. Instead, Washington sent a letter to Congress expressing his sense of the young country, thanking his colleagues for the opportunity to serve, looking forward to his retirement, and warning the new republic of some of the pitfalls it might face going forward. He cautioned against the forces of geographical sectionalism, political factionalism, and interference by foreign powers in the nation’s domestic affairs.
For the past century and a half, nearly every year around the time of Washington’s birthday, a U.S. Senator has been assigned to read Washington’s entire farewell letter and then to inscribe his or her name and brief remarks into a leather bound book maintained by the Secretary of the Senate (https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Washingtons_Farewell_Address.htm). I haven’t yet found a record of which Senator will have the honor of doing the 2020 reading.
As this year’s election cycle heats up, I am often outraged by the depths of corruption in the current U.S. national administration. Rather than “draining the swamp,” this administration has done its utmost to fill said swamp with sleazier, bigger alligators. Factionalism seems the order of the day. Both documented instances and rumors of foreign interference in our electoral process abound. Our current chief executive rarely confers with advisors and bridles at any criticism. He relishes vilifying opponents. He fires or forces resignations of long-term military and civil servants seemingly at will. He believes that only his views and desires matter, a sort of universal pass—“you have to let me, because I’m the star.”
It’s likely to take a great deal of work by a lot of us, combined with a small modicum of luck, to reorient our national politics, whose slide into sectionalism, factionalism, and interference by foreign powers has tainted both political parties for a good while. Within my voting adulthood since 1968, we’ve had one Presidential resignation, two Presidential impeachments, plus several other national scandals. During the same period, we’ve had major changes in our media landscapes, our manufacturing processes, our economy, our demographics, our communications and transportation technologies, and the state of the global economy. Nevertheless, President Washington’s concerns are still relevant.
A more recent former President had a bit of trouble correctly quoting an earlier proverb, but got the gist of it across. In 2002, George W. Bush admonished a Tennessee audience with a paraphrase of the aphorism: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” It’s high time we listened to both Georges.
To Our Macho Valentines
We need to talk.
When a disturbed young man sprays death on twenty first-graders with an assault rifle, when an aging oligarch bases a political campaign on insult, intrigue, and innuendo, when an ex-student defames Valentine’s Day by gun-murdering former schoolmates, when inconclusive wars kill thousands, displace millions, cost trillions, drag on and on,
we are overdue for some serious readjustments.
Our over-reliance on competition, violence, vengeance and
warfare needs to be scaled way back.
Ages ago, marauding bands with the best available clubs and spears made sense. Settlements were sparse, beasts huge, weather harsh. Outward threats were plentiful.
Now billions of us live in cities, where we vainly pretend to manicure and
manage nature, ignoring our dependence. Most threats are manmade, but our fears and habits of protections have yet to catch up with our
Human violence has thrust out everywhere: world wars, holocausts, genocides, civil wars, mass rapes, terrorism, alongside more intimate horrors.
We may mouth misleading terms–“collateral damage”–but it doesn’t help.
Our knowledge of the desolation we inflict on each other still sticks in our throats.
So for a few moments,
drop your swagger,
your snigger, your armor,
Come join our quiet circle.
Don’t bring us presents–
no flowers, no chocolates,
no well-intentioned but futile
promises to keep us safe.
Just sit. Breathe.
No words, no gestures.
Open your senses.
Experience life’s interweavings.
Soon we’ll finish.
Then you can go back to media sports.
But first we’ll say our piece plainly:
though we may have admired your youthful feats
of physical or mental prowess, we won’t stop loving you
when injury, illness, or old age waylays you.
Actually, when you’re not too loud, we love you best of all when you
lie snoring peacefully beside us, just as human and vulnerable as we are,.
With deepest affection,
Gardener’s Song —by Jinny Batterson
(In memory of Nancy Small Van Dijk on what would have been her 72nd birthday; Nancy served for several years as HOA chair of our condo complex. During her term, she spearheaded an effort to get a “Welcome Garden” of flowering shrubs at our previously clay-slope entry drive.)
This garden is overgrown, the weeds are practically choking it.
I come here and sit alone, and wonder what will become of it.
Yet we started out as gardeners, as workers in the soil,
And we reaped a bounteous harvest from our ever-loving toil.
Some cities are overgrown, with drugs and crime and pollution.
We sit in barred rooms alone, each writing a rational solution.
Yet we’ve cities full of gardeners, of players in the soil,
And the plants and herbs and flowers reward our ever-loving toil.
Our planet is overgrown, wars, strife, disease, aggravation,
We stumble our lone ways home, uncertain of continuation.
If our world should blow to pieces, not survive its own turmoil,
Would we all come back as gardeners, blessed to ever-loving toil?
While We Were Away —by Jinny Batterson
While we were away, heartened by or hiding from
The tropical sun, walking the sandy beaches at dawn
Or swimming in warm waters midmorning,
While we were away, the early daffodils began
Blooming, but the tulips lured by a mild January
Got chomped to the base by browsing deer.
While we were away, the birdbath I’d emptied
To avoid having it cracked by winter ice
Was instead picked up and overturned by
March-like winds, though the bird feeders
Continued their cooler weather work of
Helping prospective parents bulk up for spring.
While we were away, a new-to-humans virus spread from
An initial center at the Chinese city of Wuhan
To most regions of the globe, engendering worry,
Research, and sales of face masks and hand sanitizer,
While the U.S. legislature continued its descent into more
And more abstruse angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debate.
While we were away, the British government,
Having at length realized it no longer ruled the world,
Completed another step in its bid to ignore that world,
To hoard what remained of its material wealth,
Announcing to erstwhile partners that it had chosen
Instead to take its marbles and go home.
While we were away, we played old and new games,
Each winning some, losing others. We purchased
Travel mementos from some of the tropical peoples who’d
Made both British and American empires possible.
Returning either tanned or more freckled,
We’ve brought back some adjusted mental context
That may prove useful while we are at home.
I joyously affirm that I
Will tell the part of the truth
I can discern at this moment,
Not trusting solely
In my own instincts,
But drawing wisdom, too,
From my fellow humans
And other creatures, also,
As we strive to move closer
To the wholeness that nature
Reestablishes again and again
Now and forever.