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!
This Year’s February 14 —by Jinny Batterson
This morning the sun rose here earlier than the day before;
The poinsettias a neighbor gave me to nursemaid
After the Christmas holidays droop a bit, but still
Lavish red and pink accents on our late-winter
Condo. My husband sneaks a colorful set of earrings
Onto my place at the breakfast table. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Only this year we add a differently sanguine tradition:
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Remembrance Day.
Last year, this morning in Florida started out routine,
Even joyous, until lives were shattered by gunfire.
Does it matter whether the gunman was mentally ill?
Does it matter that he had access to a military-style weapon,
Designed and sold for no other purpose than killing humans?
At 10:17 a.m., schools and workplaces will observe a moment
Of silence, remembering slain students Alyssa, Martin, Nicholas,
Jaime, Luke, Cara, Gina, Joaquin, Alaina, Meadow,
Helena, Alex, Carmen and Peter. We’ll ponder whether
Any of us have the bravery or protective instincts of staff
Members Chris, Aaron, or Scott. We’ll continue to mourn, to
Question what we can do to reduce the chances that
Future holidays will also come to hold dual meanings.
Thoughts, prayers, silent vigils help. They’re not enough.
Additional steps are required. To honor their memories, go a little
Beyond: Send a pointed Valentine message to your legislator.
Follow up with emails, maybe even visits. Make a donation.
Register and vote. Talk with those of different views.
Find the unique, universal core deep within you,
Then share it. Some holidays exist for us to reclaim.
Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street —by Jinny Batterson
The first time I remember participating in an autumn ritual of gathering black walnuts (juglans nigra), I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My dad, a small-scale residential building contractor in Maryland’s burgeoning suburbs, would notice, as he traveled from one building site to another, where there were black walnut trees growing along the sides of still-rural roads. He’d make mental notes of the most likely candidates for a bountiful fall harvest. Then, one crisp Sunday afternoon in October or early November, he’d load Mom, me, and my younger brothers and sister, along with some buckets or bushel baskets, into the family station wagon. He’d drive us all to that year’s designated walnut gathering site.
We kids learned to be careful picking up the nuts. If the outer hulls were the least bit bruised, they could ooze a sticky sap onto our hands, turning them walnut brown. Once we’d either filled our buckets/baskets or run out of easily accessible nuts, we’d all pile back into the station wagon and return home.
The next challenge was to find a good way to remove the nuts’ outer hulls, then to keep the partially processed nuts secure from local squirrels until it was time to finish the nut cracking process. Dad tried various mesh screens, or running over the walnuts with the car, or storing the unhulled nuts loose in a shed in the back yard while their outer hulls dried, then husking them like corn. No solution was perfect, but by Christmas we typically had enough partially hulled nuts left to shell out a supply of nutmeats for flavoring cakes and Christmas cookies. Black walnuts’ inner shells are hard. It took a lot of effort with a hammer and a nut pick to get the meats from their shells. We nearly always missed a few choice morsels that were just too difficult to pry out. The flavor of black walnuts in carrot cake or oatmeal-raisin cookies, though, was worth the extra work.
For a lot of years after I left Maryland, I lived where black walnut trees were scarce. Then one autumn as I was wandering in a suburban park near the central North Carolina condo where I now live, I spied a black walnut tree with nuts on the ground around it. A brief errand back to the condo to get a bucket and some gloves equipped me for suburban foraging. That year’s crop was bountiful enough for both me and the squirrels. My after-harvest squirrel protection measures worked well. The resulting carrot cake was wonderful. For several years afterward, I found enough nuts in this park along aptly named Walnut Street to share with the squirrels and still have my carrot cake.
Walnut trees, it turns out, do not thrive in deep shade. They need a certain amount of sunlight to achieve their maximum potential, hence their prevalence along roadway edges, in open areas, or in abandoned fields. They are a tree that “does not play well with others”—they produce a substance, jugione, that inhibits the growth of other trees and shrubs in their vicinity. However, their nuts and their wood are both valuable. They also appear on several top-ten lists of temperate region trees which absorb the most CO2, helping mitigate climate change.
This year, the suburban park tree of my past harvests is inaccessible—stretching skyward behind fencing near a new library/parking complex. Though it stands in a “tree protection zone,” I’m not sure if it will survive the construction disruption. Habitat loss is not the only challenge for black walnuts. In the U.S. west, a fungal pest has been decimating walnut groves there. The disease has recently been discovered in Tennessee. If it spreads widely, walnuts may eventually suffer the sorts of die-offs that previously wiped out elms and chestnuts.
We need our trees, especially our mature specimens. Please send thoughts, prayers, and good tree karma to North Carolina’s remaining black walnut trees. While you’re at it, please pay attention to other instances of environmental neglect with potentially awful consequences for us proud, stubborn humans. A recent short clip, “Gone in a Generation”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/gone-in-a-generation/?utm_term=.7d70420d76b8, tells the story rather starkly.
Experiments in Car-less Living —by Jinny Batterson
My body periodically tells me it’s no longer young or limber—creaky knees, back twinges, huffing up hills, diminished stamina, hearing difficulties, memory lapses.
The biggest problem is my eyes. Most of my life I’ve been nearsighted, my vision corrected with either glasses or contact lenses. Unfortunately, my aging orbs have recently developed both glaucoma (probably an inherited trait) and cataracts. The glaucoma, caught early, has done minimal harm, with further damage slowed or stopped by medication. The cataracts will sooner or later require corrective surgery. In the meantime, my night vision is declining. I try to avoid driving after dark. For those evening events I really don’t want to miss, I do my best to catch rides.
Last weekend I traveled out of town to my previous hometown of Richmond, VA. During this midwinter solo getaway, I’d visit with former classmates and friends, touch base with my financial advisor, attend a couple of public events. The trip could be a more extended experiment in getting along without a car. I’d made a provisional plan:
1) Get my accommodating husband to drive me and my luggage to the train station, then take the Friday morning train north from Raleigh, NC.
2) Get a former college suite mate to pick me up at the Richmond station and shepherd me around to that day’s activities, then drop me at the suburban hotel I’d booked near my other weekend events.
3) Line up two other friends who lived near the hotel to be my companion/chauffeur, one each for the two other weekend days, with my “Sunday driver” depositing me back at the Richmond train station in time for the mid-afternoon southbound train.
4) Phone hubby and have him pick me and my luggage back up in Raleigh.
The start of the plan worked well—hubby complained only slightly about getting up early enough to drive me to the train station; the train, though slightly late, was very comfortable; my classmate met me promptly at the Richmond station; we shared a leisurely restaurant lunch nearby and began catching up on our respective lives. She then drove me to my Friday afternoon appointment downtown. I wasn’t sure how long it would last. My friend assured me she’d be available for further ferrying duties—just phone her once I was done. After she deposited me at the appropriate high-rise office building, she drove off westward to share babysitting chores with her husband, spending some quality time with their most recent grand baby.
The meeting was briefer than I’d expected, so I decided to experiment with the new high-speed bus that ran from the downtown area west to a shopping center near where my friend and her husband were babysitting. That way, I figured, I’d save her from coping with downtown traffic plus have my own little adventure with public transportation.
The infrastructure of the new bus line was impressive: a dedicated bus lane, ramps to raised bus stops imbedded in the median of a major east-west street, automated ticket kiosks. The first kiosk I came to was out of order. I asked a woman waiting for the next bus where I could get a ticket headed west.
“Maybe the machine at the next stop is working,” she told me, “but it’s quite a ways.”
Turns out one of the design changes for the new line increased the distance between stops. I walked about half a mile, got a ticket, then waited fifteen minutes for the next bus. Overall, the five mile trek to the shopping center took me more than an hour. Not a huge problem for me. Potentially hard on someone with a tighter schedule and/or mobility problems.
After my “Friday chauffeur” had picked me up at the shopping center, we’d caught up more over coffee, and she’d deposited me at my hotel, I got a plaintive phone call from Saturday’s ride. She’d broken a bone. She was in pain, with her arm in a sling. She was temporarily in no shape to drive.
Due to my friend’s injury, my Saturday logistics would be more complicated. Luckily, I’d installed an app on my phone for one of the ride-sharing services that’s recently sprung up in some American cities. An exploratory check for potential rides turned up multiple possibilities. My scaled back Saturday itinerary could be satisfied using a combination of public bus, walking, and Lyft. On Saturday morning, the hotel front desk directed me to a nearby bus stop; my first errand was just over a mile away along the bus line; a return walk to the hotel was doable, though there were gaps in the sidewalk on a busy street. In the afternoon, Lyft rides to and from my event were less expensive than I’d feared. I found a supper restaurant an easy walk from the hotel. My Sunday ride was healthy and punctual. Needing her chauffeuring was a good excuse to catch up. Hubby picked me and my luggage up with minimal griping.
My aging eyes have got me thinking about our society’s over-dependence on private automobiles. If I’d previously listened to the frustrations of car-less friends and acquaintances with a mixture of pity and amusement, my turn for similar frustrations might arrive sooner than expected. I’m still lucky—I can afford and access alternatives. People with limited economic means can rarely afford a car, for-fee ride-sharing, or extensive public transit. In rural areas, suitable transit isn’t often available. This morning I awoke to a cold snap that had made outdoor temperatures so frigid that in some northern areas, schools and offices were closed, and even the U.S. postal service had temporarily halted deliveries.
An aging population, income disparities, geographic sprawl, and climate change will severely stress a society accustomed to hopping in the car for every errand and need. Public transportation in the area where I live is spotty, but I’m going to learn more about riding the bus (https://gotriangle.org/how-ride-bus), using ride sharing services, and occasionally engaging a customized pick-up service our town provides. What are your options?
MLK, Jr.: Reweaving the Dreams —by Jinny Batterson
While he was alive, I knew little about him.
The mainstream press in Baltimore barely mentioned
This Negro preacher who’d helped marshal a yearlong bus
Boycott and in the mid-1960’s won a Nobel Peace Prize.
There were rumors he might be a Communist.
I was in high school, with other concerns—
Who could I get to take me to the prom?
Would my SAT scores help me get into a good college?
Would my parents take away my driving privileges
After an accident that I at least partially caused?
By the time I got to college, his star was waning,
Eclipsed by rising black militancy and a war in Southeast Asia
That dragged on and on. His tactics and pronouncements were
Less influential, less obviously successful in northern cities than in
Earlier Southern-based campaigns. Non-violence and preaching peace
Didn’t appear to work against big-city political machines and war contractors.
At first it seemed his dreams had come unraveled when his life ended.
As riots broke out in many American cities following his assassination,
I sat distracted in a secluded dating parlor on a small college campus,
My boyfriend’s bent-kneed proposal and diamond ring a pale foreground
To a muted television backdrop of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,
Two bookends of my youth, engulfed in flames, sirens, and riot police.
By the time his birthday was declared a national holiday
In November, 1983, I was attempting to learn and implement
Parts of his dream in rural central Africa. My efforts met with
Little success in a country whose few rich and many poor lived in vastly
Different worlds, with a minuscule middle partly made up of expatriates
Like me. I had lots of time to read the contents of a USAID library.
Martin Luther King, Jr., I learned, was a middle child, born just before
The Great Depression. His family lived in a relatively prosperous black enclave
In segregated Atlanta. During his early studies, he drifted, but partway through
High school he was inspired toward the ministry. He went north and completed
An impressive formal education, earning a doctorate by age twenty-five.
The parts we now recite in school start in Montgomery, Alabama,
Where he was nominated, as a young, little-known preacher, to give voice to the
Aspirations of people who had for too long been shunted to the back of the bus.
After the successful conclusion of the bus boycott, sixty civil rights leaders met
In Atlanta, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and elected
MLK as its first president. Then came sit-ins, Freedom Summer, Albany,
Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, a Poor People’s Campaign, a sniper’s bullet.
Those of us who call ourselves progressives winced at subsequent American
Foreign and domestic policy, wrote letters, attended rallies and marches,
Wondered what else we might do to stop, or at least reduce, the madness.
For a while, we thought we had found an answer in another young,
Eloquent brown-skinned man. Twice we elected him national president,
Allowing complacency to creep into our ongoing efforts.
Our current national administration is more nightmare than dream.
It wants us to forget that our deepest dreams are inclusive rather
Than exclusionary, spiritual as well as material. MLK knew this.
He tried to tell us, over and over again, but we rarely listened.
We know MLK had flaws—infidelity, sometimes neglecting his family,
Carrying too much of the movement’s burden by himself.
We do not need another plaster saint, of whatever skin hue,
But Coretta was right to insist that we honor MLK with a holiday.
Though not free from sin or error, he was also a prophet
Who recalled us to our best selves. May we remember
His efforts as we redouble ours, reweaving stronger dreams.
Networks and Hierarchies—Holding the Tension —by Jinny Batterson
I’ve long been intrigued by the relationship between networks and hierarchies. When I recently did an online search for “networks versus hierarchies,” I came up with lots of current articles in economic and business publications about the relationship between these two forms of human organization. Much of it seemed to me to provide little practical help in structuring a real group or team. For example, a 2018 posting on chiefexecutive.net related that:
“The network structure must come together organically, depending on the unique conditions of the organization, and not be over-engineered at the risk of simply creating a supplemental hierarchy.”
Several articles discussed the merits of Niall Ferguson’s book The Square and the Tower, partly a historical review of alternating periods when, he suggested, either networks or hierarchies prevailed as social constructs. Some questioned whether technological changes such as the internet now favor networked organization. Per a pundit at econlib.org, “However, it is a fallacy to insist that just because the Internet is peer-to-peer, human groups necessarily must array themselves in that fashion in order to be successful in the current technological setting.”
As something of an egalitarian and even more a contrarian, I’ve mostly chafed at the hierarchical human groups I’ve participated in, just as much when I was, at least titularly, “in charge” as when I was an “underling.”
In the now-outdated data processing world that I inhabited for much of my paid work life, the earliest data structures were isolated files, often with one field as a “key.” Later, related files were grouped into “hierarchical databases,” with “parent” and “child” segments grouped into multiple levels. In order to be able to access any given segment, it was important to know all the relationships among segments. “Child” segments typically could be accessed only through their chains of parentage. Imagine my relief when the first “relational” databases appeared, with the capacity to search “across” in addition to “up” or “down.” I no longer know the innards of the various data structures that make up our current cyber-world—perhaps underlying it all are certain hierarchies of keys, but access is so rapid that the casual observer remains unaware.
Usually a description in words is easier for me to follow than a diagram. However, once a generation ago at a summer institute I was drawn to sketch a chalk picture of a series of adjoining “pyramid” triangles, linked in such a way that they made a pie shape. Instead of power being concentrated at a “top,” it now occupied a “center.” Although it was possible to go from the outer part of one pyramid through the center to the outer part of a different one, it was often quicker and easier just to traverse part of the outside. This “pyramid of pyramids” looked very much like a spider’s web.
My suspicion, based both on a long-term relationship with a caring but somewhat hierarchically-oriented male partner and on shorter-term experiences in a variety of organizations, is that preferences for organizational style are somewhat gender-linked. The females of the human species tend somewhat toward networks; males are typically more comfortable with hierarchy. Both types of organization are needed—holding one or the other up as a model for all interactions does not work well. The problem is learning to creatively hold the tension between appropriate situations for each…
The One-and-a-Half Person Kitchen —by Jinny Batterson
Before we downsized to our current condo, we had a huge eat-in kitchen, complete with a slate floor, an island, and a dining area for six. When we entertained, there would sometimes be three or four people working in the kitchen at once—slicing, plating, baking, washing up, whatever. Our present kitchen facilities are much smaller, with a basic gas range, fridge, sink, small pantry closet, and limited counter space. Though the floor area is a bit wider than a galley kitchen, it’s not really expansive enough to hold two chefs at the same time.
Usually this is not a problem. Even before our downsizing, we’d divvied up family meal responsibilities—whoever cooked did not clean up, so we had an orderly succession, with just one person in the kitchen for each phase of a meal. At our current digs, we do very little in-home entertaining, so it’s unlikely that guests will disrupt this standard meal arrangement.
What has become an occasional problem is breakfast. My spouse and I have different dietary restrictions for our aging, somewhat crotchety bodies: I need to restrict salt; he needs to restrict carbs. If our sleep patterns diverge enough so only one of us is awake and breakfast-hungry at a time, all is well. When we both want to have breakfast at the same time, things can get a little complicated. Jim may reach into the refrigerator door for his morning beverage of choice—diet soda—at the same time I’m trying to extract a yoghurt container from an interior shelf. With some preplanning, we can share parts of the same menu: quinoa pancakes, basic omelets, yoghurt and fruit, or whole wheat toast.
It’s usually the little things that trip us up: who’s responsible for retrieving then heating the syrup (sugar-free from the pantry closet for him, maple from the fridge for me)? Who gets the butter or margarine? How about getting the flatware out of the drawer that’s just below the only counter space near the stove? To an outside observer, we might look like either a feuding couple or the most awkward dancers on the planet. We’ve improved a little over several years of breakfast improvisation, but not a whole lot. Lately, Jim has discovered a low-carb sugar substitute that goes wonderfully with a fresh grapefruit half, one of the lower-carb fruits on his “good list.” I’ve further complicated our breakfast dance by getting him a grapefruit sectioning knife, which he proudly uses, clogging up any available counter space. Ah, well. Whose turn is it to make lunch?
Old Years’ Resolutions —by Jinny Batterson
For many years, I’ve avoided making discrete New Years’ resolutions. I have a tendency to backslide. Eliminating harsh words, taking off five pounds, following an exercise plan—most years such resolutions would get broken by late January if not sooner. Instead, I’ve tried just setting general directions, somewhat more gently: I’ll bite my tongue a bit more often, eat a little less, exercise a tad more. I’m not sure if those around me even notice. Still, I reason, how can I expect to improve either myself or the world if I spend lots of my time blaming myself and/or making up excuses for broken promises?
Looking forward and setting goals are important, with New Year a frequent milestone for doing so. As I get older, occasionally looking backward seems appropriate, too. What has gone well in the year just ending? What has gone poorly?
This past year has been good for me. I realized a long-term goal of publishing a travel memoir. I enjoyed generally good health. My husband and I shared several adventurous and rewarding trips. Meanwhile, the world at large has caromed along with perhaps more disasters and more vitriol than in some years. Headlines and blogosphere trend negative.
On the personal front, I think I’ve done a fair job at maintaining a civil tone in interactions with relatives, friends, acquaintances and elected officials across the political spectrum. However, I did send a somewhat snippy letter about varying leadership styles to our congregation’s new minister; I used some harsh words in a couple of the postcards I mailed to our current national leader. Weight control? Not so good—after a December trip that included lots of holiday feasting, any implicit goals about weight loss have fallen short.
What about exercise? There I think I’ve shone. Partway through 2018, after an extended hiking trip in rural France upped my average step count well above 10,000 steps per day, I set a short-term personal goal: Could I keep my annual average above 12,000 daily? With just a few days to go, I’m tantalizingly close. Today the weather where I live has been pleasant, so getting in steps outdoors (roughly between four and five miles) was easy. Tomorrow and the next day are predicted to be rainy, making outdoor walks less appealing. New Year’s Eve may find me trudging on the treadmill at the gym, or pedaling the second-hand exercise bike at home, or even doing late-evening laps around our small condo as the TV counts down the final hours until midnight. If I’m able to meet this “old year’s resolution,” set not in January but in August, I’ll be pleased. The world at large may still be somewhat dicey, but I’m in better shape.
Concentrating too hard on “new year” milestones may cause us to miss chances for learnings and goals later in the year or later in life. Looking back through much earlier personal journals, I found a year-end thought from 1982, a year in which unrest in Poland and the continuing cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been much in the news. The U.S. economy was in recession. Britain and Argentina had gone to war over the Falklands, a set of small islands in the South Atlantic. Nevertheless, I wrote then: “All in all, 1982 has not been a bad year. The world is still teetering on the brink of disaster, as usual, but there’s been a lot of love and beauty, too.”
May 2019 turn out to be a year in which many personal and broader issues move toward better resolutions, whether made early or later. Happy New Year!
Coping with the Cold —by Jinny Batterson
If we live in northern latitudes, by now we’ve likely experienced some chilly weather, even if the calendar does not yet officially signal “winter.” How to cope? Consider our animal natures, and choose a strategy:
1) Migrate (like wild geese)
2) Hibernate (like black bears)
3) Congregate (like emperor penguins)
This winter, I expect to employ all three strategies at different times—
heading to parts of Florida, becoming a human “snow bird” at a beach full of sun-seeking Northerners;
deciding a snow day is a good day to snuggle under as many blankets and quilts as I can pile onto the bed and there’s really no need to get up;
gathering with friends and festive libations for New Years (both Western and Eastern).
What’s your favorite winter coping style?
To Be a Public Servant —by Jinny Batterson
In the many memorial tributes to former President George H.W. Bush, one of the phrases most often used goes something like, “He exemplified a life of public service.” Though “Bush 41” generally downplayed his accomplishments, he served with distinction in the U.S. military during World War II, and as a young man later succeeded in a variety of academic settings, sports competitions and business enterprises. He was part of the American political landscape for over thirty years in both elective and appointive offices—member of Congress, special envoy to China, head of the CIA, Vice President, and President.
Perhaps as we pay George H.W. Bush deserved tribute after a long, distinguished life, we may take a minute to ponder the more general question of what makes a public servant. Does a particular office confer it? Is there a curriculum or course one can take to learn public service? Is it ingrained, a character trait one is born with?
My guess is that, like many aspects of life, being disposed toward public service is part nature, part nurture. The senior President Bush was born into privileged circumstances, but was also schooled to honor his responsibilities to the larger community. If we sometimes under-appreciated his efforts while President to create a “kinder, gentler America,” his intention to generate such a shift in emphasis was evident, and he used his office and the tools at his disposal to try to nurture public spiritedness.
Most of the public servants I have known have been neither holders of high political office nor members of the military. While not often in the public eye, not necessarily in physical danger, they’ve nonetheless been necessary to the flourishing of our lives. They’ve been data entry clerks, or customer service representatives, librarians, researchers, scientists, technicians, computer programmers—each fulfilling a task to improve the way the public sphere works.
Let’s honor President Bush’s legacy by paying him tribute, and also be renewing our commitment to public service and public servants at all levels. Some opportunities for public service are described on the website of the Points of Light Foundation—https://beone.pointsoflight.org/. Others abound in different areas of the internet. Find one, and become a public servant, whatever your other title(s) may be.