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!
Democracy Is Not an “Ism” —by Jinny Batterson
We’re living in a strange season, locally, nationally, globally. First came a novel corona virus to which few humans have immunity. It has spread fear, illness, disruption, and death to nearly every country. So far efforts to contain, cure, or prevent it have met with uneven success. In many parts of the United States of America, the outbreak seems to be worsening.
As people everywhere began to cope with the pandemic, it quickly became evident that self-isolation and social distancing were the best ways to slow the virus’s human spread. In the U.S., those at the “bottom” of society were least likely to be able to self-isolate. Most lived in crowded conditions. Those who were employed mostly worked in low-wage service jobs necessary to society’s functioning—“essential workers,” they were suddenly called, as if a dignified label could make up for generations of poor pay and poor living conditions. Others chose not to isolate or distance because these practices seemed an impingement on their liberty.
To add to the trauma of the pandemic, we’ve recently been confronted with other examples of our inequitable society. Video footage went viral of a white police officer in Minneapolis squeezing the life out of a prone, handcuffed black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes while other officers looked on and bystanders yelled for him to stop. It became less and less possible to talk about “resisting arrest” or “a few bad apples.” The systemic corruption of America’s criminal justice system was broadcast worldwide for all to see.
And we have an American election coming up, one that’s poised to be expensive, divisive, and prone to distortions at many levels. Is it any wonder many of us are disturbed? Whatever happened to the “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of hope for oppressed people everywhere? Whatever happened to our democracy?
I’m not exactly sure, but I think part of the difficulty is that we’ve confused democracy with ideology. Many of us self-identify at least partly using a series of “isms”: conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, socialism, libertarianism, federalism, communitarianism, environmentalism. Every week seems to bring a new label.
Democracy is not supposed to be easy. It is always a work in progress. Some guidelines our U.S. founders laid out have generally held, but there were huge blind spots in our original framework of laws. Some of those blind spots have persisted, as the George Floyds and “essential workers” of our country have recently reminded us.
Democracy requires that each human has some say in decisions that impact him/her/them, regardless of circumstances. In small settings, that say may be direct. As groups get larger and more diverse, it becomes necessary to have “representative democracy,” where officials are elected to represent a neighborhood, town, city, county, state, or nation and to champion the interests of their constituents.
Democracy requires that each human be willing to listen to perspectives that differ from his/her/their own, to acknowledge the humanity of others, to be humble about the limits to any individual’s knowledge or judgment. Whatever “isms” we subscribe to, we all breathe air, we all drink water, we all eat food. While we’ve been busy discounting and insulting each other, our air and water are getting dirtier, parts of our food supply are at risk, and more of us are becoming sickened by the corona virus.
A few of our political leaders have stressed our connections across our divisions: “We’re all in this together. We’ll get through this together.” Too many of us may not get through at all unless we start acting as if we believe that, meeting each other beyond our “isms.” Happy In(ter)dependence Day!
What DJT Learned in Kindergarten (with deepest apologies to Robert Fulghum, whose original essay, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” can be found at this link: https://cpco.on.ca/files/9214/0182/6527/NeedToKnow.pdf)
Call people names,
but get supporters to hit them for you.
Forget where you got anything not rightfully yours.
Get others to do your dirty work,
then say you don’t know them if they get caught.
Take as much as you can possibly get away with.
Never, NEVER apologize. It’s weak.
Wash those pretty little hands,
just not in public during a covid-19 pandemic.
Live as indolently as you can–
Complain loudly when world events interrupt
Your golfing vacations or big rallies.
Before you give another command occasion
Speech at a military academy,
Practice walking down ramps.
Don’t trust anyone, and don’t let anyone
Get close to you–they might not be loyal enough.
Remember that your life is all mapped out:
Just one continuous advance to ever greater heights.
Don’t ever wonder what it all might mean.
Plants and animals are boring. There’s nothing
We can learn from them. If they die, it’s
Because they weren’t forceful enough.
Be like your friend Vlad–rig a vote to
Give yourself a lifetime appointment,
Then make sure that that life is eternal.
Forget about Dick or Jane or LOOK.
Paying close attention to anything or
Anyone besides yourself might be distracting.
RULE (just not over your own excesses).
Wild Berries –by Jinny Batterson
Summer is taking over,
Turning days warm and muggy,
Even just past dawn.
Going outside gets less
Appealing, while still a
Healthier alternative to
The viral burden of
One more morning walk.
Meandering along a greenway,
Hugging the shade,
I nonetheless come
To a sunny stretch
Where the first of the
Season’s wild blackberries
Winks at me from the verge.
It’s only a little tart,
So warm and juicy.
A welcome reminder
That not everything
Beyond my control in
This season of covid
Noticing a Tailwind —by Jinny Batterson
As discussions and protests continue around issues of police brutality, systemic racism, and possible ways forward, I’m reminded of a long-ago vacation when I viscerally experienced the difference between the presence and the absence of a tailwind.
Back when my husband and I were younger and fitter than we are now, we sometimes planned bicycling vacations. An especially memorable one was a two-week jaunt during the 1990’s to some then-isolated regions of eastern Canada. We were able to reserve ten days’ lodgings in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, with a side trip to an even smaller, more remote set of islands further east—disjointed parts of the province of Quebec in the midst of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Our initial setting out point was Charlottetown, PEI’s capital and largest city. In those days, Charlottetown was a frequent honeymoon destination for Japanese brides who’d read the popular novel series about Anne of Green Gables, an orphaned girl raised in an idyllic rural setting by her potato farmer aunt and uncle. The novels had been part of their high schools’ curricula in Japan. We wandered the town for a little while, getting oriented and marveling at the trilingual street signs (English, French, and Japanese). In the afternoon, we got a taxi to the site of a bike rental agency where we’d reserved two appropriately sized rental bikes.
We then pedaled off to our first night’s lodging, a rental cabin at a campground not far from town. For most succeeding nights, our overnight accommodations would be at small inns and B&B’s about 30 miles apart, an easy day’s ride in the generally flat or gently rolling terrain.
Once we reached an eastern edge of PEI, we took a ferry from the smallish town of Souris to the even less populous Magdalens, or îles de la Madeleine. We’d reserved four nights’ lodging on these islands—three on the island with the ferry terminus and one on an island further north.
Our first night we stayed near the ferry terminal in a family home with multiple generations in attendance. After a plentiful breakfast the following morning, we pedaled off northward, cruising easily along, spotting herons and other shore birds as we went. We traveled along a sandy causeway little more than the roadway wide and reached our destination mid-afternoon. Our northern island host was a dedicated birder. He gave us hints about when and where to get the best views of shore birds. Accommodations were simple but ample. The sunset and star views were unsurpassed. The following morning, after another plentiful breakfast, it was time to return southward.
Pedaling along the causeway this time felt as if we were trying to propel our bikes through a slick of molasses. On our way northward, we had been totally oblivious to a substantial tailwind. The wind had not shifted overnight, so our return trip was straight into a significant headwind. It was well into evening when we reached our third night’s stay.
I cannot know what it is like to be a black person in the United States of America in the year 2020. Though I’ve studied some about the traumas of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, though I’ve had friends of color who were willing to share a few of their individual stories with me, being non-white is not part of my lived experience. The one minimal experience I’ve had on a bicycle riding into a headwind may be a small example of what it frequently feels like to be “living while black” in today’s America.
So I need to ask myself, repeatedly, what additional actions I can take to make that headwind a little less severe.
Complicity —by Jinny Batterson
Never once have I used the “n” word.
I’ve supported worthy causes,
Occasionally even put my personal
Safety at risk. I’m not like those bigots
Who can’t seem to understand
That, deep down, we are all one.
Yet I live where sirens are rare, where
Police are rarely present or summoned.
The officer who came last Sunday to
Investigate the fawn lying prone
On our sidewalk was friendly,
Bemused, not overbearing.
No verbal threats. No tasers.
No weapons drawn.
The economic system that nurtured me
Valued brain over brawn, and
Whiteness over everything else.
It diminished the dignity of manual
Work, replaced those with fewest
Connections with robots, or with
Off-shore call centers, while
A privileged few profited, assuming
They merited special consideration.
“Who you knew” became nearly
As important as what, and
Everyone cheated, if only a little.
Getting ahead became a mantra,
Though it was never clear what
Exactly we were getting ahead of.
This house of cards is collapsing.
Will I be buried under it, or
Will I help find a way to make explicit a
Rebuilt society that shelters and
Protects a multifarious polyglot of
Worthies, whatever our skin color,
Skills or connections?
Debts, Trespasses, Entanglements, Forgiveness… by Jinny Batterson
The household I grew up in spoke several dialects of Protestant religious traditions, so I was alternately exposed to variations of a basic prayer that asked forgiveness either of “debts” or of “trespasses.” Not being a scholar of ancient languages, I’m not sure whether either term is close to the meaning of whatever word appeared in the earliest Biblical texts. Certainly, in modern times we’ve accreted lots of baggage to the words “debt” and “trespasses” both.
While our national and global economies reel from the impact of a viral pandemic on systems of commerce and taxation that have relied heavily on buying more and more goods and services on credit, the notion of forgiving debts has a lot of appeal. Debt forgiveness, or “debt relief” as Wikipedia puts it, has a long and checkered history, with so far no great system for honoring both the forgivers and the forgivees of past debts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt_relief).
According to one Biblical scholar, the notion of “forgiving trespasses” came to prominence in England around 1600 as the enclosure movement gained momentum: “…the enclosure and privatization of formerly open farmland… left the aristocracy richer and commoners with nowhere to grow food. Prosecutions against commoners for trespassing on newly enclosed land … were a frequent activity by the wealthy and a tragedy for the lower classes, many of whom were sent to prison or the gallows.” (https://livingchurch.org/2017/03/14/forgive-us-our-trespasses/) For the wealthy and prominent of their day, forgiving trespasses was both a worthy act and a way to express some contrition and solidarity with those less fortunate.
A while ago, a friend sent me another prayer variation that spoke of releasing us from the entanglement of past mistakes. I liked the general tenor of the prayer, invoking at its beginning a “cosmic birther of all radiance and vibration,” rather than the “our Father” that I’d too often visualized as a vindictive older white male. It’s not clear to me where this prayer came from. It seems likely that it’s a “New Age” variation of the more traditional prayer rather than a more-literal translation of an ancient text (https://www.nas.org/blogs/article/o_cosmic_birther_the_lords_prayer_meets_the_american_college_textbook). Still, in my current circumstances, I resonate more easily with entanglements than with either debts or trespasses.
What seems most pressing to me as our societies struggle to deal with past debts/trespasses/entanglements due to systemic racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, and a host of other “isms,” is that all of us are in need of forgiveness. To ask forgiveness requires that we acknowledge our brokenness and risk trying to do better. Defining forgiveness can be harder than working on debt or trespass or entanglement. It is easier to tick off what forgiveness is not: easy, quick, or painless. Nor does forgiveness mean forgetting the harm or relieving the debtor/trespasser of accountability. One touchstone for me in the process of seeking forgiveness and of forgiving others and myself has become a sequence outlined in Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s 2014 book, The Book of Forgiving: 1) Admitting the wrong and acknowledging the harm; 2) Telling one’s story and witnessing the anguish; 3) Asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness; and 4) Renewing or releasing the relationship.
May we seek forgiveness, may we forgive, may we do better.
A Protest Lullaby Project —by Jinny Batterson
My hope is that many of you can remember a time in your childhood when your mother or a special adult sang you a soothing lullaby. One of my favorites is “All Through the Night,” originally a Welsh song. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzFqirIGVB4)
The past couple of months, especially the past couple of weeks, have been unsettling for me. As I write, the annual June anniversary of the use of repressive force in China in 1989 has nearly arrived. Many of us living in the United States of America are witnessing the use of repressive force on our own streets. In the wake of another senseless murder of an unarmed black man, demonstrations have begun and persisted in many American cities.
At the same time, a global viral pandemic has hit our country hard, uncovering many inequities and rifts that those of us in comfortable circumstances have tried for too long to cover over. Concerns over the spread of the virus have dampened the public activism of many older Americans, those of us most vulnerable to serious illness or death from covid-19.
Many who are wiser than me have counseled prayer. Spending time on our knees is one good way to acknowledge both our pain and our solidarity. Another may be songs, both energetic and uplifting, and, at the close of the day, soothing.
My hope is that younger people in areas under curfew will continue peaceful in-person protests, wearing face coverings and observing as much social distancing as possible. Airing long-festering grievances and concerns, both in public protests and in virtual spaces, is crucial to beginning to address them.
I suggest that we add to other protest rituals, a few minutes before curfews take effect, a lullaby. Let’s sing to each other, to ourselves, to our President and political leaders of all persuasions. Let’s choose whatever language and idiom most suits. Let’s mouth the words, silently or aloud. If we are not under curfew, let’s practice a lullaby a few minutes before sunset.
Singing and praying to and for each other will not by themselves solve our problems. Nothing but sustained, concerted actions at many levels will. But a lullaby can offer a brief respite, perhaps open a greater possibility for healing our too-fractured world.
Hush, my worldmates, peace attend thee, all through the night…
The Flowers Have Not (Yet) Gone —by Jinny Batterson
It’s been a rough week to be an American. The death toll in the United States from the covid-19 pandemic crossed the 100,000 mark, while multiple U.S. cities experienced repeated, sometimes violent demonstrations in the wake of Monday’s death of yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Our economy has sputtered to a halt. Partly as a result of virus-related lockdowns, nearly a quarter of the U.S. labor force is unemployed. Our president sporadically spreads hatred and gibberish through his favored media platform, becoming so blatant in his misrepresentations and lies that Twitter has recently put “fact check” warnings on some of his posts.
As various U.S. states attempt to restart their economies in the midst of a highly contagious novel corona virus with no known treatment or vaccine, cases have started to spike again in multiple hot spots. No one seems to know a good solution to the multiple crises besetting us.
I sometimes get a “deja vu” feeling about our current problems and unrest, as someone who in 1968 was a young adult with much idealism and little experience. Then, an escalating and increasingly stalemated war in Vietnam was killing a disproportionate number of young black American men. Most American men between the ages of 19 and 26 (though less so the wealthiest or best connected) were susceptible to being conscripted into the military. In early April, Martin Luther King, Jr., an outstanding proponent of non-violent civil disobedience and a leader in the fight for legal equality for African-Americans, had been assassinated by a sniper while helping organize a peaceful protest for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. In the wake of his death, over a hundred American cities had erupted in protests that often turned violent and destructive.
Conditions in many U.S. cities in 1968 were unequal, with housing projects and decaying urban neighborhoods receiving little in the way of substantive government assistance, while billions were being spent to advance presumed U.S. political interests overseas. Other government programs either intentionally or collaterally favored “white flight” to the suburbs, which were largely off limits to non-whites. Sound vaguely familiar?
Many collegians of the 1960’s had become enamored of a folk song revival, one of its signature songs being “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” penned by Pete Seeger in 1955. Joe Hickerson had later added more verses, turning the song into a circular questioning of the premise of warfare. The folk/rock trio of Peter, Paul and Mary popularized the expanded version, which remains a touchstone for many of us who lived through that era. (You can view their 25th anniversary rendering of the song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgXNVA9ngx8.)
In 2020, I’m somewhat creaky in the knees and a bit too virus-averse to participate in large gatherings, so I admire from a distance the courage and forbearance of many of the protesters (and many of the police officers who work to deescalate tensions, both short-term and longer-term). Meanwhile, I continue to send emails and postal letters to elected officials at all levels. I support voter registration and voting rights initiatives. I sew and give away protective face masks. I tend gardens. I plant flowers. I want to remind myself and others that the flowers have not yet gone.
Wandering in the Wilderness of Covid-19 —by Jinny Batterson
When as a child I read Bible stories about the forty years the Hebrews spent wandering in the wilderness after they fled Egypt and before they entered the promised land, I could partly identify, as someone who easily becomes lost. However, even as a child, I thought forty years seemed a very long time. I guess they probably didn’t have an app back then for directions on their cell phones, but couldn’t they ask someone for directions? Didn’t anybody have a map?
As we humans try to navigate our way through the covid-19 pandemic, I’ve become more appreciative of the Hebrews’ difficulties. It wasn’t just physical distance the Hebrews needed to traverse. Turns out, the space between one “normal” and the next was just as much psychological as physical. The Biblical Book of Numbers tells of the challenges of life in the wilderness. At first, some Hebrews wanted to return to Egypt. There, though enslaved, they at least had plenty of varied food: “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers… and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Revised Standard Version, Chapter 11, verses 5-6).
As they neared what they expected to be the promised land, overall leader Moses sent twelve tribal chieftains to assess the area: “Go up into the Negeb yonder, and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak … and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad… Be of good courage, and bring some of the fruit of the land.” (Chapter 13, verses 17-20). The majority report, ten of the twelve, recommended giving up—the people already in the promised land were too strong. This majority even discounted the land’s good points, saying, in essence, that it was not worth fighting for. A minority of two believed the land was indeed worth trying to possess. They thought the challenges were not insurmountable, given spiritual assistance. It took an entire generation, plus lots of disease and death, before the rest of the Hebrews were persuaded.
Another example, from the medical field, is closer to modern America in distance and time. It concerns the spread of the use of antiseptics to prevent post-surgical infections. In the nineteenth century, surgical advances made more complex operations possible, but deaths following surgery soared, sometimes taking half of all patients. One British professor of medicine then observed: “A man laid on the operating table in one or our surgical hospitals is exposed to more chance of death than was the English soldier on the field of Waterloo.”
British surgeon Joseph Lister in 1865 read the results of experiments by French scientist Louis Pasteur, who connected microscopic bacteria with fermentation in foods and wine. Lister wondered whether what caused fermentation in food might also cause infections in wounds. In the late 1860’s, he began experimenting with different procedures and chemicals to reduce the chances of infection. He published the results of his cases in medical journals. Over time, he refined his approaches. Still, it took nearly a generation before antiseptic practices were widely used in hospital surgery wards.
The wilderness of covid-19 response is disconcerting. Recommendations of currently available best practices can be confusing. As my home state of North Carolina begins the second phase of cautiously reopening its economy, the NC Department of Health and Human Services advises that I’ll still be “safer at home,” but that I’ll have an expanded range of businesses and non-profit groups I may visit. When getting my hair cut at a reduced-occupancy salon or dining in a reduced-occupancy restaurant, I’m advised to “wear, wait, wash”—wear a face covering (except, presumably, while eating), wait at least six feet from other customers, and wash my hands frequently (https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/materials-resources/know-your-ws-wear-wait-wash).
My guess is that it will be a good while before we’ll reach a post-covid “normal,” though I hope it will take less than forty years. Those of us who survive this pandemic will mourn our losses. In hindsight, we’ll realize that some preventive measures we tried were more effective than others. Some people will remain unenthusiastic about the longer-term changes we will need to make to reduce the threat of future pandemics.
Still, we may take heart from the experiences of those venturing toward a promised land or safer surgery. The wilderness, however disorienting or longlasting, is neither uniform nor useless. It provides the venue and the time to develop and practice new skills we need. We cannot go back; with good guidance and courage, we can go forward. Please stay as safe and sane as possible, all, while we venture toward our post-covid world!
Efficiency and Resilience—Mutually Exclusive? —by Jinny Batterson
The stay-at-home phase of the covid-19 pandemic has given me more time to wonder about human futures, along with ready access to the internet and a husband who’s keen to curate podcasts and videos he thinks I would benefit from hearing and seeing. Last week, he sat me down to watch an hour-long talk and Q&A featuring Dan Ariely, a working-from-home internationally acclaimed psychology professor at nearby Duke University. Ariely contrasted our tendencies toward efficiency and resilience. (https://today.duke.edu/2020/04/using-social-science-aid-fight-against-covid-19). In a shorter interview printed in an India-based magazine, Ariely explained:
“This virus demonstrated that we are ill-prepared for a catastrophe … hospitals are equipped to deal with the standard inflow and outflow. Almost all normal hospitals don’t have extra capacity. Our economic systems are basically designed to work efficiently, as efficiently as possible. But they are not designed for a day of emergency. Very few governments would say let’s put money aside for a rainy day. There are very few companies that do it.” (https://openthemagazine.com/features/pandemic-related-behavioural-changes-wont-last-long-dan-ariely/)
The notion that we humans too often opt for efficiency over resilience, emphasizing short term gain rather than long term viability, has been around nearly as long as humans have thought and written. It gains traction during times of chaos or rapid change. Books exploring two variations of this idea came out when I was a young adult beginning a career in the rapidly expanding, then relatively new field of computer-mediated commercial data processing. One was Alvin Toffler’s 1970 treatise Future Shock, which theorized that the increasingly rapid pace of change was disorienting to humans being required to adapt on many levels in a short time period. The other, The Limits to Growth, was a 1972 volume co-authored by Donella Meadows, an outgrowth of an early computer modeling exercise to study interlocking factors that might limit the future viability of human societies on planet earth: population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation.
My attempts to sidestep the shock and stay within the limits have so far been partially successful: I’ve been able to create a wide network of family, friends, and colleagues who’ve helped buffer the impact of multiple life changes by sharing support and humor; partly out of choice and partly through necessity, I’ve been more limited than many in reproduction, food habits, resource use, material output, and pollution generation. However, these earlier habits have not helped much to inform my response to the novel corona virus. So I wondered, what might Toffler and Meadows have to say about our current dilemmas?
Both Toffler and Meadows have died. Both left change-studying institutions as parts of their legacy. Toffler Associates (https://www.tofflerassociates.com) presents itself as a “future focused strategic advisory firm.” Meadows co-founded a predecessor to the non-profit Academy for Systems Change (https://www.academyforchange.org), whose mission is “to advance the field of awareness-based systemic change in order to accelerate ecological, social, and economic well-being,” a tall order in these uncertain times. I’d encourage those of you with time and internet access to explore Ariely’s insights, along with both these groups’ online presence.
In the Academy’s archives is an article written by Meadows in the late 1990’s, still somewhat applicable: “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” (http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/) In her article, Meadows argues that many of the interventions we espouse to “fix” a system are either immaterial or counterproductive. Midway through her exposition of twelve increasingly influential leverage points are “negative feedback loops”:
“Nature evolves them and humans invent them as controls to keep important system states within safe bounds. A thermostat loop is the classic example. Its purpose is to keep the system state called ‘room temperature’ fairly constant at a desired level. … A complex system usually has numerous negative feedback loops it can bring into play, so it can self-correct. … One of the big mistakes we make is to strip away these ‘emergency’ response mechanisms because they aren’t often used and they appear to be costly.”
Part of our flat-footedness in responding to a novel corona virus has been the creakiness or absence of emergency human health response mechanisms on a global scale. It’s my hope that we may muddle through this crisis without catastrophic human damage, but with enough impact to prod us toward becoming more resilient, both in our personal choices and in our institutions.
The “Club of Rome,” which underwrote the study on which The Limits to Growth is based, still exists. It still provides cautions about its perceptions of humans’ misappropriations of global resources. But its pronouncements are not entirely doomsday. It continues to embrace, too, the hopefulness of Limits’ conclusion:
The book contains a message of hope, as well: Man can create a society in which he can live indefinitely on earth if he imposes limits on himself and his production of material goods to achieve a state of global equilibrium with population and production in carefully selected balance.