This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Most were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. I hope some of the entries may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!
Falling into Grace —by Jinny Batterson
Grace Church, the church of my childhood,
Smelled of furniture polish, dust, and old masonry.
It sat squat, tucked into a hillside above a graveyard
Where my mother, at twelve, had sledded into a
Headstone, chipping both front teeth.
From behind the altar, stained-glass-filtered light
Shone on the choir stall where I sat, searching in the
Back of the Book of Common Prayer for my springtime
Birth date in the schedule for each year’s Easter.
My cousin, Grace, came for a week’s visit
As we both teetered at the edge of adolescence.
She had an athletic build, a mane of blond hair.
Not self-conscious about her body like I was,
She shed her day clothes before bed, revealing
The beginnings of breasts and pubes where
I was still flat and hairless.
During college jaunts to the small Shenandoah
Valley town where my boyfriend studied, I walked
Past a different church. Early in the 20th century, it
Was renamed to honor a fallen general with a mixed
Legacy that has become increasingly problematic
In our post-Charlottesville polarizations. .
My childhood church is still there, if little used.
My cousin Grace died after a horse riding accident.
Reverting to its original name, Grace Episcopal
In Lexington, Virginia struggles for reconciliation.
Nostalgia renders all more graceful.
It’s the season of falling—leaves blush, then let go.
We notice lengthening darkness, tremble at dark events.
When we pay attention, though, we still have access to
Qualities of bearing, blessing, benediction:
There’s still the possibility of falling into grace.
The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico —by Jinny Batterson
Like many mainland Americans, I’ve been watching a fair amount of television reporting these days about the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Nearly all the island’s electric, transportation, and communications infrastructure was decimated by the back-to-back hurricanes. Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, and pummeled the island only thirteen days after a lesser blow from Irma had disrupted power for up to a million residents.
The news coverage sent me to the Internet to try to get some additional background on factors that contributed to this disaster impacting the estimated 3.4 million Puerto Ricans—about 1% of the total U.S. population.
Of course, the immediate causes are the hurricanes themselves—two of the most powerful storms ever seen over land. But there is also a backstory of decades of neglect, indifference, and discrimination that contributed. It seems somewhat cruel in the current circumstances to note that 2017 marks the centennial of Puerto Ricans’ American citizenship—on March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, establishing limited U.S. citizenship for all islanders born during or after 1898, when the island was acquired by the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.
At the time of the U.S. takeover, Puerto Rico was primarily an agricultural economy. Its principal exports were coffee and sugar. That began to change after World War II. In 1950, the U.S. initiated an “operation bootstrap” program to encourage industrialization and economic growth, and for a while the economy boomed. Puerto Rico’s economy began a long-term decline in the late 1990’s after a change in the U.S. tax code phased out a provision that had allowed mainland-based companies to avoid corporate taxes on profits made in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. During the decade of 1996-2006, as the phase-out program took effect, manufacturing jobs declined from about 160,000 to about 110,000. More and more Puerto Ricans left for the mainland, where job prospects might be better. By 2016, over 4.6 million Puerto Ricans resided on the mainland, with the greatest concentrations in metropolitan New York City and in Florida.
Politically, Puerto Rico chafed under near-colonial rule that seesawed between periods of development support by mainland politicians and periods of repression. Successive votes by islanders to change their status generally supported some variation of the status quo until 2012, when a majority of islanders voted to become a state. The referendum was controversial—opponents had tried to get people to abstain from voting altogether and later argued that the vote was invalid.
Once immediate crises ease and redevelopment plans begin to be developed, it might be wise to consult extensively with this “other 1%” to learn what Puerto Ricans, those with the most at stake, want their still-proud island to become.
Cycling Toward Resilience —by Jinny Batterson
September 22, 2017, according to my wall calendar, marks this year’s equinox, ushering in autumn in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern. It’s the day when the sun’s arc passes directly over the earth’s equator, when day and night are of nearly equal length. It would seem to indicate a sort of balance. For many of us, balance right now is in somewhat short supply.
Broadcast news these days carries stories and images of catastrophic damage to the U.S. Southeast and American territories in the Caribbean from three different hurricanes so far this season. Parts of Texas and Florida, all of Puerto Rico and most of the U.S. Virgin Islands may never again be the same after Harvey, Irma, and Maria. And hurricane season isn’t even over yet. Meanwhile, swaths of eastern North Carolina have yet to recover from last year’s Hurricane Matthew damage. Parts of New Orleans have atrophied since Katrina’s 2005 onslaught. Five years after superstorm Sandy, houses in New York and New Jersey are still boarded up.
Locally, our town is balancing on the cusp of another municipal election, with multiple candidates in each race this time around. Last night I attended a candidate’s forum co-sponsored by several non-partisan volunteer groups. The crowd was standing room only, the tone civil, the questions and answers thoughtful and generally restrained—no promises to hold the line on taxes, no shirking from admissions that both infrastructure and population in our community are aging, that revenues since the 2008 recession have not kept up with population growth, that we face challenges. A couple of incumbents emphasized the need to move away from our current high dependence on private vehicles toward a greater use of walking, cycling, and public transit.
So I got to thinking about bicycles. A pre-hurricane posting to a San Juan, Puerto Rico website extolled the pleasures of bicycling on recently completed trails around that city. One post-hurricane-Maria clip of the initial stirrings of movement in Puerto Rico showed a few bicycles pedaling the still-watery streets among the cars, trucks, and earthmoving machines.
Bicycles are an efficient means of transportation, especially in relatively flat terrain. Per an Exploratorium website: “In fact cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel–including walking! The one billion bicycles in the world are a testament to its effectiveness.” (see https://www.exploratorium.edu/cycling/humanpower1.html)
Unfortunately, persuading the world’s more affluent citizens to give up our cars and use bicycles exclusively is probably not practical. Yet in the Texas city of Houston, Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed over a million cars. Houston has been one of the nation’s most car-dependent cities, with nearly 95% of households possessing at least one car. We may not be able to coax ourselves out of our car habits entirely and use bikes as our primary means of transportation, but we can at least make cycling more attractive with bike-share programs, good trails and signage, incentives to bike rather than take the car on shorter trips.
As severe weather events impact more and more of our land area, as densely populated urban centers house higher and higher proportions of humanity, many cities are establishing resilience strategies, often with coordinators that reach across traditional departmental boundaries to integrate efforts. Cycling can be a worthwhile part of such strategies. Before the next big storm hits, let’s start cycling toward resilience.
(This short set of 10 lines was a response to a prompt in a poetry journal a few months after I first became a grandmother. As parts of the Caribbean and the U.S. Southeast continue the slow, hard work of cleaning up after back-to-back hurricanes, maybe remembering past challenges met and present strengths in play can help boost spirits, however slightly…)
I am a grandmother,
I am an idealist,
I am a cancer survivor,
I am a realist.
I am peace loving;
I am a dreamer.
I am an activist;
I am a schemer.
I am aging and learning to thrive–
I am alive.
The Labor of Voting —by Jinny Batterson
During the past several months, my small townhouse complex mobilized like never before. In our previously sleepy suburban neighborhood, people circulated petitions, attended multiple zoning hearings, even overcame fears of public speaking to testify on our own behalf. We want to preserve as much as possible of the leafy canopy that has surrounded us since our 100 or so garden-style condominiums were built over the course of a five year period in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
We had an impact. Though the recommendation of the town’s zoning board is not final, we persuaded a slim majority that a new development adjacent to our condo community, as currently proposed, does not adequately preserve the balance of natural and built environments that is part of our town’s appeal. Further revisions are needed.
Next month, our town and nearby jurisdictions will hold municipal elections. Turnout for municipal and local elections nationwide is usually very low—only 10 to 20 percent of registered voters make the effort to show up—a much lower proportion that the over 75% of homeowners who signed our rezoning petition (though a little greater than the 7% of owners who actually spoke at the zoning hearing…)
National politics has gotten so polarized and nasty lately that many of us have been tempted to give up on voting. Why even bother to register and vote, especially in local elections? What difference will it make? Actually, local elections may be the most important of all, for lots of reasons:
1) Town councils/county governments have the final say on zoning, property taxes, local budgets
2) Politicians DO pay attention to where their election margins come from
3) Local elections are typically among the only remaining non-partisan elections (no party labels on the ballot)
4) A vote has even more impact when “less diluted” by other voters (but don’t let that deter you from encouraging others to vote)
5) If the person you support wins a council seat and later runs for higher office, you may have additional clout as one of his/her early supporters
Because of expected low turnout, some localities provide less publicity and fewer convenient options for voting in local elections—not as many hours or sites for voting early, stricter rules and not as much notice about voting absentee.
My read of our national history is that we have had a see-saw record when it pertains to the voting franchise. As an American woman, I gained the right to vote through efforts of generations of suffragists who came before me. I’m dismayed at what I perceive as current efforts to disenfranchise the most vulnerable members of our society—minorities, the young, the frail elderly, the disabled, the poor, the homeless.
At least in my state, voting in political elections is not as convenient as registering a “like” to an online post, or signing an online petition. It takes some planning, time, and effort to request and return an absentee ballot, or to find your polling place, show up at an appropriate time, and cast your ballot. Compared to the instantaneous nature of some other parts of our lives, voting can be labor intensive.
Still, voting is among the most precious labor rights we have, whether in a labor organizing effort, a presidential election, or a local one. So, this Labor Day, once you’ve cleaned the grease off the grill and put the remaining sweet tea in the refrigerator, please consider the importance of the labor of voting in this year’s elections. If you haven’t already, please go register to vote. Once the election process starts, please vote!
Where the Great Wall Meets the Sea —by Jinny Batterson
Earlier this summer, I had a chance to check off a minor item on my “bucket list,” finally visiting an eastern terminus of China’s Great Wall. I’d first seen a section of the wall near Beijing nearly forty years ago. Much later, I’d visited the wall’s western terminus near Jaiyuguan along a portion of the Silk Road in Gansu Province. Now I wanted to see where this 5,500 mile plus engineering marvel met the sea. One balmy, pleasantly breezy mid-June morning, I got my chance.
This Great Wall excursion was part of a much longer China trip, first reconnecting with old friends, then checking out areas of northeastern China that were new to me. Internet access in China had improved tremendously. My husband, our family’s computer nerd, was able to find enough English-language variants of Chinese travel apps to help craft an unaccompanied land tour in China’s northeast. We benefited from great advances in China’s transportation and public transit infrastructures, including high-speed rail service between most major cities. As a retiree, traveling with my retired husband, I could create an itinerary that was more flexible and slower paced than a package tour. My Mandarin skills had advanced to the point where I could carry on very basic conversations: asking directions, purchasing train tickets, ordering in restaurants, swapping basic biographical information with people in more remote areas who were curious about two “big nose” visitors.
For the Great Wall portion of our adventure, we booked several nights’ stay at a luxury hotel in the nearby city of Qinhuangdao, along China’s fashionable “gold coast.” When we arrived, the area was basking in an interval of June weather when the skies were clear and temperatures were comfortable. Our second morning, after a sumptuous breakfast buffet featuring both Chinese and Western dishes, we ordered a taxi and headed the dozen or so miles toward the coast to visit where the wall jutted into the sea, at “Old Dragon’s Head” (Laolongtou) along the Bohai Gulf, in northern Hebei province.
Substantial parks surrounded several sections of restored wall. For centuries, walls had been built in this area in attempts to keep marauding northern tribes from attacking Chinese settlements further south. The seaside sections of the wall had been reinforced and greatly expanded during the 16th century, near the end of the Ming dynasty. Close to the wall’s descent to the sea, a few Ming dynasty stones had been left bare to show layers of the original wall’s structure. Along most other accessible portions of the wall, modern stones had been added during restoration efforts in the 1980’s and 1990’s to provide a more uniform surface.
We spent parts of two days exploring several portions of the wall, getting to and from town sometimes by taxi, at others by inexpensive public bus. The area was blanketed with signs in Chinese, Russian, and English. A major toll road, the Jingshen Expressway, runs from Beijing over 400 miles northeast to the city of Shenyang via Tianjin, Qinhuangdao and Beidaihe, a summer hangout for senior Chinese officials. As we skirted parts of the expressway, we saw familiar green and brown highway signs, signaling exits (green) and sights of interest (brown), the same color scheme used along many U.S. interstate highways. Tourist services were abundantly available, including a KFC where we shared a chicken nuggets lunch, surrounded by conversations in Mandarin, Italian, French, and Russian.
Looking right from the final seaside tower at Laolongtou, I could see a wide sandy beach. A little further in the other direction was a major modern container port. I was impressed with the scope and strength of the wall itself, but flummoxed by the notion that the wall could keep out anyone out who desperately, passionately wanted to get past it—a simple small boat under cover of night might suffice. Actually, forces of China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing, had come from north of the wall and marched south through it at a strategic pass after the Ming Dynasty disintegrated due to corruption and infighting.
If, among its other craziness, our current national administration persists in plans to build a wall along the U.S.’s border, American officials might benefit from a visit to Old Dragon’s Head as a cautionary reminder.
Health Care: It’s Complicated (or Is It?) —by Jinny Batterson
It is sometimes easy these days to grow disenchanted with the various attempts to improve the U.S.’s ailing health care system. As Congress grapples with ways to improve/replace the Affordable Care Act and to shore up existing government health care subsidy programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, let’s take a broader look at what we mean by health care.
A generation ago, a non-partisan grass roots political group I belong to, the League of Women Voters, studied the health care issue in order to make some informed recommendations at multiple levels of government. (A summary of the U.S. League’s position on health care is available at http://lwv.org/content/health-care.) Some of the conditions we discovered during our initial study in the early 1990’s have changed, but other basic trends have remained, even accelerated. As a population, we Americans are getting older, fatter, and more likely to suffer from various addictions—drugs, alcohol, nicotine, sweeteners, fats. Access to health care is skewed toward those who already have a disproportionate share of economic resources.
We’ve all likely heard the various statistics—overall, health care costs for Americans account for nearly 18% of U.S. economic activity, compared to a global average of about 10%. Is it any wonder that many people’s health care insurance premiums are going up?
Part of the increase in medical costs comes from advances in medical practice and tools. If my grandmother suffered from arthritis, she had few options other than aspirin. My mother’s options were broader, but not nearly as broad as mine. Now it’s possible to have most joints replaced. Medicines and/or surgery are available to deal with many of the chronic illnesses that either killed or debilitated Americans in previous generations. Yet dissatisfaction with the state of our health and our health care continues. Some have more medical coverage than they need, while others have little or none. Medical providers are exhorted to improve “patient satisfaction,” yet some studies show no correlation at all between patient satisfaction and one important measure of medical efficacy—mortality. So what are we to do?
One non-traditional approach comes from “clown doctor” Patch Adams, his staff and colleagues at the “Gesundheit Institute.” I’d read Patch’s book Gesundheit when it first came out in 1993, and watched the 1998 movie partially based on it, but hadn’t really thought much recently about this approach to medicine. Patch and crew subscribe seriously to the notion that “laughter is the best medicine.”
This spring, as I was preparing to visit a young doctor friend in China, I emailed Ruby to see whether there was anything I could fit into my luggage that she’d like me to bring her from America. What she asked for were copies of some of Patch’s books. By jettisoning an extra shirt and pair of slacks, I fit in one copy each of Gesundheit and House Calls. Like any conscientious donor, I reread the first book and skimmed the second during trip preparations. Lots of what it said about healthy habits and healthy communities made sense to me.
As luck would have it, my visit with Ruby coincided with the opening of a newly built hospital in her home town. It also fell on the weekend when she’d arranged a monthly “clown doctoring” session at the hospital children’s ward. For several years previously, Ruby had spent extra time and effort to incorporate a clowning component into the medical practices at her hospital. She’d developed a corps of about twenty doctors, nurses, and volunteers. Prior to our ward visits, she spent over an hour preparing us, individually and as a group, for our interactions with each other and with patients. Ruby especially emphasized the importance of not invading the children’s or their families’ space without permission. Once our visits were over, she did a thorough debriefing. I don’t know if any measurement would have detected an impact on the health of these children and their families. I do know that among the children who wanted to interact with us, we got lots of smiles, some chuckles, and even a few outright guffaws.
My visit with Ruby and my reintroduction to Patch Adams’ work reminded me that health care is about more than preventing or curing active illness. It is also about more than preventing death at all costs. Health involves caring for each other. It is vibrant. It includes the capacity to be silly and to laugh with each other, to make fun of ourselves and of some of life’s absurdities. Put that way, it doesn’t seem all that complicated.
A 49th State of Mind —by Jinny Batterson
Alaska is huge. Alaska’s human population is sparse, with overall densities of only about 1 1/3 people per square mile. (For comparison, if New York City had the same population density, it would have just over 400 people.) Nearly half of Alaska’s roughly 700,000 folks live in or near its largest city, Anchorage. In some years, according to wild game estimates, Alaska has more caribou than people.
Over 2/3 of the land area of Alaska is owned by the U.S. government. Its most famous park, Denali National Park, though not the state’s largest, still covers as much territory as the entire state of Vermont. Through both military and civilian jobs, the U.S. government is the largest employer in the state. The petroleum industry is also a major sector. Tourism provides a boost in the state’s more accessible regions, with the population of greater Anchorage roughly tripling during the summer tourist season. Alaska produces low-sulfur coal, precious metals, and seafood for export. Alaska has over 4 times as much ocean coastline as second-ranked Florida, and nearly twice as much shoreline as the Great Lakes state of Michigan.
To me, an Easterner with only occasional jaunts west of the Mississippi, Alaska was too much to get my head around. In my 2-week visit, it was impossible to take in the immensity of the place. Partly via packaged tour, partly courtesy of a former high school classmate, I did get to see a small portion of southern and central Alaska.
Arriving in Anchorage on a summer weekend, I went for a ramble through a downtown street fair. Most of the stalls sold food, crafts, or fabulous photographs of the local flora, fauna, and scenery. Near the end of one aisle was a t-shirt booth. Some shirts just showed superimposed maps to scale. Others included text: “Texas is so cute,” one shirt read. “If we split Alaska in half, Texas would become the 3rd largest state,” proclaimed another.
What most impressed me about Alaska, though, were not its huge swaths of empty acreage or its magnificent mountain vistas. What I was most drawn to were its waterways and sea life. My camera finger was not quite quick enough to capture the spectacle of eight adult humpback whales and one calf “bubble net fishing” along the Lynn Canal near Juneau, but the experience was magical. Bubble net fishing can be engaged in either by solitary humpbacks, or as a cooperative effort by temporary groups of up to 15 whales who’ve learned a more productive way to fish.
Research about whale feeding behavior continues, but based on studies so far, it seems that cooperative bubble net efforts are usually led by an older female. A bubble “net” can be cast starting up to 60 feet underwater. Multiple whales exhale while swimming in circles around a large school of fish, creating a cylinder of surface-bound bubbles. The whales also emit a curtain of sound, audible to underwater sonic devices. Schools of herring and/or other small fish are confused and frightened by the bubbles and the whales’ vocalizations. Most remained trapped in an ever tightening net. Gradually the whales and fish move inward and upward, until all break the surface in a huge explosion of open-mouthed whales and silver-sided fish. Swarms of gulls swoop in to pick up the scraps.
My prior images of Alaska were of rugged individuals—solitary survivors of harsh natural conditions, perhaps hoping to strike it rich during a gold rush, or braving winter blizzards to win a sled dog race. This is part of the Alaskan ethos. But it is not the whole. There are also the whales—once hunted to near-extinction, these huge mammals have benefited from whaling restrictions. They also have learned that it can sometimes be in their best interest to cooperate.
Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses —by Jinny Batterson
Last fall, one of our favorite former students in China emailed us exciting news—she was about to get married. A few weeks later, our former student, “Mona,” sent a second message with an attachment: a picture of her and her new husband in their wedding clothes. Mona looked fetching, much dressier than the Mona I was used to—she posed, seated on a high stool, in an elegant flower-print dress with a brimmed hat to match. Her husband, decked out in a casual summer suit, looked over her shoulder.
For much of June this year, I had a chance to travel in mainland China and to reconnect with some former students and colleagues. Especially wonderful was a chance to visit Mona, whose new husband had been a high school classmate I didn’t yet know. They’d chosen each other after a long, sometimes long-distance courtship. I got to spend a couple of days with them. While I was visiting, Mona explained the logistics of arranging her wedding pictures, an increasingly common part of Chinese wedding preparations:
Few people actually buy clothes for their wedding pictures or have pictures taken on the wedding day itself, she explained. Rather, they rent dressy attire from specialized businesses and pick out a place and time to have professional still pictures taken, sometimes adding a brief video. They usually choose a historic or natural beauty spot, on a weekend day when both partners are off work. Because Mona is short for a woman of her generation in China, preparations were somewhat complicated. One weekend, she and her groom-to-be visited a rental agency and picked out clothes they liked in close to the proper size. The following weekend, they went back to the agency to pick up the clothes, which had been altered slightly for better fit. On still a third weekend, she and her fiancé dressed in their rented finery and met a hired wedding photographer at the agreed upon site and time. Scheduling was tight and did not make allowances for weather. The day Mona’s pictures were taken, it poured down rain. The search for a “perfect shot” took most of a very long day and left both photographer and subjects tired and bedraggled. It took a fourth week to get the rental clothes dried, cleaned, and returned to the rental agency.
Not long after my visit with Mona and her new spouse, I ventured out on my own to parts of central and northern China where I’d never visited before. In the northern seaside town of Qingdao, I came across a cobblestone plaza more filled than usual with elaborately dressed Chinese. Primed by Mona’s descriptions of her wedding picture adventures, I realized that what I was viewing were a whole series of wedding photo shoots. June is a prime wedding month in China, just as in the U.S. I counted eighteen different couples having their wedding pictures taken. The weather was windy and blustery—gowns and photo accessories were hard to keep steady. A dozen of the brides were wearing western-style dresses in white, while others had flowing formals in red, considered a lucky color in China. For one set of pictures, an entire wedding party was assembled, including five or six young girls in frilly white dresses.
Over the course of this China visit, I noticed more and more young girls dressed in frills and bows, and not always in wedding groups. I’d see them on public busses, on trains and subways, in public parks. All were with at least one parent or grandparent. Often, a parkland family group would be taking selfies, the grandparents somewhat subdued in both manner and dress, the dads fairly casual, the moms dressier, anchored with the latest shoe fashions, the daughters often in white or pastel lacy dresses not much less formal than bridal finery. I crossed my fingers that the attention these girls were getting was a sign that the traditional stigma of having a daughter in China was lessening. None of the girls I saw looked neglected or abused. Many were far from docile. Most seemed valued family members, confident without being arrogant.
A few times, I saw girls and young women in less frilly outfits—on one park walk, the mom and dad in front of me strolled along at a normal pace, while their two daughters in trainers, shorts and tank tops raced ahead running sprints. At another public square, I noticed a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt with an English-language slogan: “Women are the Future,” it proclaimed.
My re-entry into the U.S. was through our 49th state, Alaska, where few women are shrinking violets. I saw the kennels run by the family of Susan Butcher, who’d earlier won the long-distance Iditerod sled dog race four times. I got to meet her elder daughter, now actively involved in training new generations of sled dogs for new challenges. Perhaps China’s daughters, and America’s, will one day soon be ready to take their places in a rapidly changing world that needs and welcomes their skills.