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 day last year, March 3, 2020, marked the first reported cases of covid here in North Carolina. It was also the day of our presidential primary. As of today, we’ve logged over 11,000 covid-related deaths in our state, over half a million in our country. We have a different President, after an election process fraught with tension and followed by an insurrection. It seems like a very long year.
As the pandemic began to impact us, we were told at first not to wear face masks. Hospitals and health workers were short of personal protective gear, so any available supplies were needed for them. Starting March 10, 2020, North Carolina’s governor began issuing a whole string of executive orders aimed at containing or mitigating the spread of the virus. A “stay at home” phase began March 30. Executive Order 121 enjoined residents “to stay at home except to visit essential businesses, to exercise outdoors or to help a family member. Specifically, the order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to physically stay at least 6 feet apart from others.” Schools had closed. Parents and teachers scrambled to come up with alternative child care arrangements and virtual learning plans. Stores sold out of paper goods. Small businesses and communities of color were among the worst impacted.
Nationally, our then-President predicted that the virus would disappear on its own. Locally, most social, religious and philanthropic groups canceled in-person meetings and began congregating in virtual spaces. Public service announcements advised us to “flatten the curve,” so that caseload spikes did not overwhelm the health care system. As spring limped toward summer, cases seemed to dip, then surge, then dip, then surge again in mind-numbing seesaws. Our regional newspaper printed the statistics of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths along the edge of its front page, a sort of grisly “box score.” Whether or not to hold in-person political rallies became a political issue of its own.
If it was an uneasy summer for all, it was especially trying for those impacted by extra-judicial police killings captured on mobile phone video. Protests erupted across the nation and around the world. Through it all, even mask wearing got politicized.
Fall brought additional complications, as jurisdictions tried to come up with safe yet inclusive ways to hold an election during a pandemic. Non-partisan election workers needed to be hired, trained, retrained, and/or retained as procedures changed, election boards jockeyed for adequate protective equipment and supplies, and the elder-skewed workforce from prior elections debated whether to risk possible infection by working in 2020. By election day, voter participation rates had surpassed records going back over a century. In our county, the proportion of absentee ballots quadrupled.
It took what seemed like forever to ascertain a winner of the presidential race, amid delayed counts, recounts, and multitudes of court cases. The loser refused to concede, opting instead to allege massive voter fraud, unsubstantiated by anything other than his massively distorted ego. Thousands of his most avid supporters came to Washington D.C. on January 6. After he addressed a rally near the White House, some of them went to the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of electoral college results. A few nearly succeeded. Their actions continue to roil our politics, just as the pandemic is starting to be dented by more widespread vaccinations and better compliance with public health measures, just as financial relief for the neediest works its way through Congress.
It’s my fervent prayer that the next twelve months will seem less endless than the preceding twelve, that some of the underlying societal ills laid bare by the pandemic will be tackled with more than lip service, and that our understanding of our dependence on the natural world will deepen. A small answer and blessing blooms in a tree well near our townhouse—this year’s first daffodils.
Recently I’ve been corresponding with my elected national legislators on a more frequent basis than previously. We’re living through rather fraught times. Some of what I have to say, I believe, may be pertinent to getting ourselves through our multiple crises. Some of the time, I cut, paste and customize verbiage that’s been suggested by one of the many citizen activist groups I belong to. Other times, I compose an individual message.
As someone with reliable internet access and an email account, I can most quickly communicate my views via email—both my North Carolina senators and the representative for my district in the U.S. House have email portals for receiving my missives electronically. The forms they’ve set up begin with basic information about who I am, starting with “Prefix,” (previously known as “Title.”) There are various choice options, different for each of the national legislators who represent me.
If I write to Senator Burr, I have nine options as a non-military citizen, or over 100 if I am active-duty military. The first available option is “Mr.,” followed in sequence by “Ms.”, “Mrs.”, “Professor”, “Dr.”, “Father”, “Sister”, “Rabbi”, then “Reverend.” For those in the military, the options are alphabetical by service branch (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy) then in descending order of rank within each branch.
Senator Tillis’s connection page has more options, but also starts with “Mr.” Among the alternatives that he includes are multiple options for couples, starting with “Mr. and Mrs.” and then branching out into “Mr. and Mr.” and “Mrs. and Mrs.” Multiple variations begin with “Dr.”: “Dr. and Dr.”, “Dr. and Mr.”, “Dr. and Mrs.”. Religious leaders may choose from “Reverend,” “Sister,” “Pastor,” or “Rabbi.” Three options indicate possible political associations: “The Honorable,” “Representative,” and “Senator.” Then there are military prefixes, mostly the same and in the same sequence as those for Senator Burr.
Representative Ross’s list is simpler and shorter, beginning with “Ms.” Given my gender and my political preferences, I find her options somewhat more to my liking. Other choices include “Miss.” (probably not an abbreviation for “Mississippi”), “Mrs.”, “Mr.”, “Mr. and Mrs.”, “Rev.”, “Dr.”, “The Honorable,” and “Rabbi.” Occasionally I’ve wondered whether all the legislators might include a choice of “Other,” with a blank for specifying my preferred prefix, at this point something like “slightly-bemused-yet-still-hopeful-human.”
So far, I’ve gotten written or emailed responses to nearly every message I’ve sent. Many are explanations of why the legislator disagrees with my views or assessment. All have used respectful language, if they can seem from my perspective to be slightly condescending.
Instead of using email, I sometimes revert to postal mail, having heard at some point that such “snail mail” was more likely to get read by a congressional staffer, rather than just put into an appropriate category for a standardized response, especially if sent to a district office rather than to Washington, D.C. The most recent response to one of these letters actually had a staffer’s initials plus the legislator’s. Progress?
Beyond the incentive to have my thoughts-on-paper read, though, there’s a piece of sending a hand-addressed letter to my legislators that I cannot duplicate via email—I get to assign a title to the addressee. My hope is that the legislator and/or his/her staffer will pay attention to that prefix: “The Honorable.”
Unprece(si)dented —by Jinny Batterson
(Meditations on this 2021 edition of “Presidents’ Day”)
It’s been a couple of weeks now since 45 left D.C.
I’m still not sure whether it’s safe to breathe.
This was a President who associated America with his brand,
Singed most forcefully into those least able to resist.
Early in life, he grew to resent others, so during
His term, he fueled resentments among us, gambling
That he could incite us to hate each other, rather than see
Through his redundant rhetoric of distraction.
In the farce of incompetent governance, he played his
Role to a T. Now he sulks, snarls and plays golf
At his crumbling Florida palace-by-the-sea,
As the Atlantic laps ever closer and his neighbors protest.
My coming of age in the 1960’s was punctuated by
Political assassinations–a President, a candidate,
Multiple civil rights leaders. I came partially to absorb
A mantra of the era’s aftermath: “Need leaders less.”
I do not believe we must do without leadership, but rather
That we each need to assume some small part of its
Mantle, leading from where we are. That way, we may
Be able to climb out from this slough of despond
And disunity, to continue the hard, joyous, needful
Work of reworking democracy for those coming after,
Many who know already about the hills we must climb. We can
And will rise. We will not subside into the once-shining sea.
A good many years ago, when my husband and I were winter-housebound by young children rather than by a pandemic, we got the idea for a midwinter party: a Groundhog Day Open House. Back then, it was perfectly all right to invite large numbers of people to come visit us indoors. Most years, I’d spend part of January coming up with an invitations list in consultation with Jim, then use whatever technology and tools were handy to write out or print up invitations and distribute them.
Over the years, our celebration evolved and moved as our children grew and we relocated multiple times. I can’t remember a year when all our invitees showed up. Among the most memorable years so far was the year we had a mammoth snow and ice storm that dumped 22 inches of frozen precipitation on our area the day of the party. As the white stuff deepened, some people phoned to express their regrets. Most just assumed we would understand why they hadn’t come. Our lone party participant was a next door neighbor, then seven months pregnant, who carefully waddled across our snowy front yards. The three of us sat in front of the wood stove, munching snacks and swapping stories far into the evening.
After we’d spent a first Chinese New Year in China (where it’s mostly called Spring Festival), we’d sometimes incorporate an Asian New Year component to our festivities, as the two holidays can fall fairly close together. Groundhog’s Day, lest anyone forget, falls each year on February 2. This year’s lunar new year is being celebrated in many parts of Asia, with today, February 12, marking the first day of the Year of the Ox. Last weekend, friends and family checked in via an online video conferencing app to this year’s joint “virtual gathering” celebration.
Lately I’ve begun to think about the importance of invitations and the value of an honest invitation. Having participated sometimes in “command occasions,” I think it’s regrettable when “invitations” are thinly veiled coercion. It also seems to me counterproductive to have invitations serve mostly as a means of obtaining social prestige—“only the best people were there.”
I’m gradually learning to avoid obsessing about turned-down invitations, especially as the virtual world explodes into more online invitations than I can possibly accept. The best invitations, it seems to me, are open conduits between the inviter and the invitee. Neither needs feel bad about an invitation that’s turned down. Neither party is more important than the other. Both can benefit from a deeper relationship, if the invitation suits, and from feeling valued, even if it doesn’t. What is important is the strengthened communication the invitation enables.
It can be hard for those of us who gather energy from in-person interactions to “wait out” our current relative isolation. Today where I live it’s rainy, a cold, soggy rain that drips from clouds just a smidge above freezing. Not a good day for outdoor interactions, the main way I meet people these days. The news, through whatever medium, is nearly as dreary as the weather. So I’m inviting myself to most of a day in a comfortable armchair, drinking hot cocoa and perusing a good book. Sometimes, inviting ourselves to quiet contemplation can be the most important invitation of all.
Trees Resting —by Jinny Batterson
Behind our townhouse is a strip of woodland,
Too narrow and too steep to build on.
In warm seasons, its leafy expanse helps mute
The noise of the car and truck traffic beyond,
Helps disguise the bareness of our increasingly
Urban former small town.
In warm seasons, it diminishes the din of earth movers
Destroying woodlands a little further away–
Woodlands a little wider, less steep– gouging space
For more townhouses, apartments, or condos.
In this season, though, most of the leaves are gone,
Leaving just fringes of scrub pines drinking in
The diminished sunlight, leaving the dormant beech
To let last year’s bleached remnants flutter in the wind.
In this season, I hear and see the traffic,
Grate at the incessant “beep, beep, beep”
Of construction equipment nearby.
In this season, the trees are resting, saving up sap,
Rooting deeper in advance of the
Next set of warm seasons, when
Their new growth may again green the hillsides.
In this novel season of pandemic-enforced rest,
My dreams are sometimes dark.
On especially noisy days, I imagine a world
Without cars or condos or humans,
Only trees, resting.
The house where we mostly raised our children was an older two-story dwelling that had likely had several owners before us. We’d bought it pre-children, thrilled by its roominess and by its relatively low price. Its exterior stucco was a light green, with darker green trim on its porches and windows. The colors fit well with the shade trees lining our narrow, one-way street. What was less thrilling was the color of its interior paint. Nearly every room was a dull, sickly looking green. Perhaps that shade of paint had been on sale when the prior owners were preparing the house to sell, or maybe they had some leftover mixture after the exterior was painted? We never got to ask.
We quickly set about redecorating to colors we found more pleasing. By the time our older child was born, we’d stripped both the paint and the wallpaper under it from most rooms in the house. The dining room became a shade of light blue, the living room even paler. A couple of the bedrooms got “photo walls” of spectacular scenery. The nursery had kid-themed wallpaper. I sewed curtains.
The room we left most nearly “as is” was the kitchen, where counters, sink, moldings, and a walk-in pantry broke the lines of the drab green. Our refrigerator, though, was the “avocado green” shade popular during the 1970’s and 80’s. I don’t remember whether the fridge had come with the house, or if we purchased it at an appliance store. Over time, it developed a slight list, so that to close its door securely you had to kick the bottom. (A habit we had to break when we eventually moved to a different house and bought a non-tilting fridge.)
The children have long since grown and set up housekeeping on their own. Their decorating tastes differ from ours, but to my knowledge, neither has ever painted a room avocado green. In retirement, we live in a townhouse with muted colors inside and out. An older friend who’s lived in this area most of his life characterizes our suburban milieu as “beigeville.”
Then, a few years ago, we succumbed to the dietary craze for avocados—on salads, on toast, as garnishes. The pits were nearly indestructible, as I found after they’d aged for months in our backyard compost bins. Curious for alternatives, I checked online for how to sprout an avocado pit. After several tries, I got one to put down a smallish root, then planted it in a ceramic pot, where it spent warm weather on our back deck, getting lots of sun, and enough water to keep it happy. We’d bring it indoors in cold weather, since our winter climate so far freezes too hard and too often for avocados. It was happiest in our south-facing kitchen window. By its third autumn, the avocado looked more like a small tree. It had grown so tall that we trimmed its main stem before bringing it indoors. We added a stake to its now-larger pot to encourage it to grow straight. Like the fridge we used to have, though, it too has developed a slight list.
This winter, our avocado tree has sprouted lots of auxiliary branches, with a spread that is encroaching ever more severely into our person-and-a-half kitchen. We’re not sure how much longer we can keep it. Do any of you in central North Carolina hanker for your very own kitchen avocado, with the transport to move it and enough indoor space to keep it happy for cold seasons to come?
The late 1960’s were a turbulent time, somewhat like the period we’re living through now. Starting in 1965, I attended a small liberal arts college in a mid-sized Virginia city. Through studies and socializing, I was exposed to professors and fellow students with a variety of backgrounds and opinions, some quite different from the prevailing views in the small Maryland town where I’d spent my first 18 years. Off campus in our college town, though, prevailing sentiments were every bit as conservative as those I’d grown up with.
Sometimes as a break from my studies, I listened briefly to a local radio station. Usually I was just trying to catch a local weather report, but I often wound up exposed to all or part of a nationally syndicated news broadcast by radio announcer Paul Harvey (Aurandt). I don’t remember much specific content from Paul Harvey’s broadcasts, but I recall a general tone. In a 2009 obituary, his style was characterized as valuing “rugged individualism, love of God and country, and the fundamental decency of ordinary people.” Through my newly expanded collegiate lens, it seemed to me that Harvey was leaving out huge parts of the news—events and perspectives that did not coincide with his spin. I was learning of historic lynchings, seeing housing and employment discrimination firsthand, experiencing the escalation of the Vietnam war, noting the routine harrassment of minorities and women. None of this seemed fundamentally decent. I began to question the premises of Harvey’s perspective.
A segment I often caught before the weather forecast was “The Rest of the Story,” typically a relatively unknown part of the life story of a famous person. One especially widely heard segment is about a high school dropout who applied in his early 20’s for an entry level job at the Swiss patent office and nearly didn’t get it. Not until the end of the segment are we told that “Al” may have suffered early life failures, but eventually went on to become world-famous as theoretical physicist Albert Einstein
(for a rebroadcast, listen to https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2v3sh1). Part of the rest of Paul Harvey’s life story was a February, 1951 trespass onto the grounds of government classified research agency Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago for which he was never charged.
These days I have a schizoid relationship with media. I need to stay informed; too often a media broadcast or internet post leaves me inflamed instead. It is very difficult to follow any news source for long without buying into some of its inherent biases. Images of a violent mob storming the U.S. Capitol are hard to ignore or stay indifferent to. Is there a rest of the story? Temporarily putting aside the role of Mr. Trump, what were the varying motivations that led some to become violent, others to remain as bystanders, and most of America’s population to stay away? Is there anything to be learned from the life histories of those who demonstrated, those who desecrated, those who tried to defuse tensions, those who attempted to report live as events unfolded?
Few of the reports I’ve heard yet can provide much insight. Too often we get competing narratives that emphasize conflicting aspects of reality. About the only commonality seems to be that all of us are tense.
We may never know the whole story. Imperfect, incomplete knowledge is part of the human condition. However, if we listen more and speak less, do the messy work of decoupling legitimate grievances from scapegoating and vengeance, insist on both accountability and mercy, we may learn more of the rest of the story.
(can be sung to the tune of “Silver Bells,” perhaps a fitting tribute, or lament, for the year 2020)
(Chorus 1): Wear a mask! Why, you ask?
It’s COVID time in our country.
And though we’d like,
We can’t wish this virus away.
City sidewalks, parks and greenways
Offer welcome respite.
In the air there’s a chill now it’s winter.
Shuttered venues, take-out menus,
At the food banks long lines,
And until vaccinations are here…
(Repeat Chorus 1)
Pharma’s Pfizer and Moderna
Make vaccines at warp speed.
Health care workers get first dibs on doses.
Testing sites fill, more relief bills,
As the POTUS still fumes,
And in virtual choirs you’ll hear:
(Repeat Chorus 1)
(Chorus 2): Wear a mask! Must we ask?
It’s COVID time in our country.
Spring will come,
Soon will be vaccination day!
This year, 2020, has been an unsettling year, burdened with more than its share of tragedy, leading up to a strange holiday season. As life got more constricted, large-scale gatherings fell by the wayside. Mid-autumn, our town announced that this year’s Chinese Lantern Festival, typically held during the shortest days of fall/winter in a large outdoor park, was reluctantly being canceled due to health and safety concerns. Bummer! Another feel-good event fallen victim to the scourge of covid-19.
For several previous years, winter evenings in our part of North Carolina had been brightened by the display of an abundance of LED-lit silk lanterns. The many lifelike or fanciful figures were variations on the traditional Chinese lanterns fabricated in a small Chinese city where the craft of lantern-making is centuries old. A Chicago-based affiliate helped organize and provide logistical support for American exhibits, which focussed more and more strongly on depictions of animals.
In late November, I finally got a welcome glimmer toward a pandemic-adapted “new normal.” After eight months of closures or “take-out-only books,” our regional library reopened. The spacious structure, open only a year or so when the pandemic upended life as we’d known it, had incorporated health screenings and stricter limits on the number of patrons at any given time in order to operate safely. The second or third day after the reopening, I ventured downtown to the library, passed the screening questions and the temperature check, and got my first “fix” of in-person perusal of both fiction and non-fiction titles. As I walked outdoors nearby, I noticed that a small open space (where the old library had been) had a collection of inflatable figures, being blown nearly off their moorings on this windy day—a very scaled down holiday display. It was a week or so before I had a reason to venture downtown again—to return some books.
Lo and behold, the flimsy figures in the open space had been replaced by a display of well-anchored, life-sized silk elephants, with a sign saying they were part of a diminished Chinese Lantern exhibit. I vowed to come back after dark to see them in their LED-infused glory. The display (one of seven, it turned out) had been positioned in a way that minimized the dangers of close contact. It was adorned with cautionary signs about social distancing, maximum numbers of people, and mask wearing. One weekday evening in December, my husband and I met a couple of local friends for a socially distanced ramble to see all of the animals—elephants, tigers, a rhino, red pandas, a bear and a jaguar, snakes, and eagles.
My husband, who keeps up with local news more closely than I do but doesn’t always remember details, thought he’d seen that the figures were “on loan” from a zoo in the Midwest. Once we tracked down an appropriate reference, we found that earlier in the year they’d been part of an exhibit at the Cleveland Zoo, so hadn’t needed to make the lengthy trip from Zigong in order to enthrall North Carolina audiences.
My hope is that the holiday season of 2021 will find the pandemic finally in our rear view mirror. Our town then may again be able to host a full (and pricier) version of the lantern festival. However, I think it’s heartening that even this year, though the lights may have been diminished temporarily, they haven’t been extinguished. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Happy (upcoming) Year of the Ox!