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!
My heart goes out to the many families who will be missing a member at this year’s holiday celebrations because of a covid-induced death. I have yet to lose a family member or very close friend directly from the pandemic, though the final year of our close late-life friend, Phyllis, was impacted. She had to journey through end-stage cancer with limits on visits from loved ones, limits to her travels beyond what her illness proscribed.
We’d known Phyllis for about a decade before her death. She was among the first non-family members to welcome us to North Carolina when we arrived here. More recently, she and her husband had finalized plans to relocate to their “retirement haven” in rural Virginia just before her diagnosis. We were very lucky that there was a summer lull in the pandemic while Phyllis was still ambulatory. She and her family visited friends in North Carolina one more time, a sort of chance to say good-bye.
As I grieve Phyllis’s absence, I’m comforted by the example she set of dying well and of leaving a nourishing legacy. She spent as much of her final months as her energy allowed painting nature scenes, a gift she had put on hold for much of an active life. Her son just posted an image of art created by a young artist at a school to which Phyllis had bequeathed her unused paints and drawing supplies.
At this Thanksgiving, made virtual for so many by the pandemic’s continuing spikes, I need to be especially grateful for late-life friendships like ours with Phyllis and her family. Many of our friends from earlier life stages have been work colleagues, or family members of our children’s friends, or affiliates in non-profit groups. Though genuine, these friendships were somewhat opportunistic and sometimes withered as our locations and life stages changed. By now, we’ve retired, our children are grown and establishing their own friendship networks, and more and more non-profits are conducted virtually even when there’s not a pandemic.
This year’s limitations on in-person holiday gatherings have highlighted what connections we still can have. Not long after we’d gotten up this morning, we got a surprise phone call from a different late-life friend, a former next-door neighbor, recently retired and living across town. A confirmed “foodie,” Greg wished us a happy holiday and shared a story of a memorable Thanksgiving feast when he was living in Germany and tasked with contributing a pumpkin pie to a community celebration with his graduate student colleagues. Turns out, fresh or canned pumpkin were rarities in the part of Germany where he studied. The only variant he was able to find were jars of pickled pumpkin. Numerous iterations of rinsing the jars’ contents before cooking didn’t entirely restore the taste of a traditional pumpkin pie.
Another set of late-life friends that I cherish are members of a pre-covid walking group, now on temporary hiatus. All of us are retired. Many of us have lost spouses. Most of us have health conditions that slow our steps and make uphills more challenging than earlier. Still, whenever I go for a walk outdoors, either with my husband or alone, I mentally have the “Tuesday morning walkers” with me.
Even once the covid pandemic subsides, through vaccination and/or better public health preventative measures, I will remain at the stage of life when more of my contemporaries will die off. It’s important, then, to cherish them while we still can. As my husband explained on a down day for both of us, “We’re likely to spend an increasing proportion of our time mourning deaths of friends and loved ones, until it’s our turn to be mourned.”
So let us give thanks for life, thanks for the capacity to share our stories, whatever the medium, thanks for friendships, especially those late-life friends who can help make this trying time more bearable. Happy Thanksgiving and a big set of virtual hugs!
A Post-Election-Day View from (a Small Patch of) Ground —by Jinny Batterson
It has taken me longer than I expected to return to a non-election schedule, after several weeks as an election official, first at early voting in our part of central North Carolina, then at a new-to-me precinct on Election Day. Nearly a week after the polls closed, I’m still getting re-accustomed to unhurried breakfasts and lunches, to dinners that are not take-out from the nearest drive-through. No more masking, gloving, face shielding each morning. Just several days of nail-biting suspense as returns continue to be processed and tabulated in half a dozen “swing states,” ours included.
My main take-away has been gratitude for the great turnout. People took this election cycle seriously. Despite the pandemic and a host of logistical challenges, nearly three-fourths of North Carolinians cast a ballot, over 4.6 million votes. As the final thousands of mail-in and provisional ballots are processed, the outcome of the presidential contest will likely not change here in North Carolina, but some of the more local races are close enough so winners may shift.
A second take-away is gratitude at the generally smooth functioning of the election process, at least as seen from inside a polling place. Many voters came equipped with sample ballots. Some had printed off their choices by hand. Others had “slate cards” from one, the other, or sometimes both major political parties. Most abided by requests to wear face masks at polling places. Many wore what looked like handcrafted fabric masks. At the early voting site where I was assigned on a college campus, there were lots of school logo masks, even on voters much too mature to have been traditional students. From my limited perspective, the presence of “in your face” slogans and derogatory sayings on voter clothes had diminished from previous presidential contests.
Much of the time, I was too busy to notice the party affiliation of voters. Even when I was not busy, I tried to avoid making assumptions about the electoral choices anyone might make based on party label or anything else. Occasionally, the spiteful-feminist part of me wondered if some of the well-dressed 50ish white men coming through my line might be compensating for their reduced chances of snagging either a red sports car or a trophy wife by sticking with an orange president. Then I reminded myself how poorly spite performs at governing—we’ve had ample evidence of that during the past several administrations.
This election’s outcome by itself will not come close to solving persistent problems. Whoever staffs incoming administrations at all levels will still be saddled with a virus pandemic spiraling out of control; with badly shaken economic, educational and health care systems; with increasingly erratic weather, more frequent and more severe storms; with record levels of income and wealth inequality. During the transition to the next administration(s), we’ll need some deep breaths (grateful that we can breathe), some deeper thinking, the deepest kinds of listening, and a citizenry that stays as productively engaged in self-government as we did while voting.
For the past week or so, I’ve been serving on the “early shift” as a non-partisan election official at the polls at Talley Student Center at NC State University. We’re just over halfway through North Carolina’s 17 days of early voting. Turnout has been a lot heavier than in previous election cycles, even during this covid-19 pandemic. Overall unofficial voting statistics are posted online each evening after the polls closed, and I’ve followed the burgeoning numbers with interest (http://www.wakegov.com/elections/Pages/default.aspx).
In our mostly urban county, about 1/3 of currently registered voters have already cast ballots in person. Because of continued litigation and voter uncertainty, it’s not totally clear how many absentee ballots have been cast, but our early site each day gets a trickle of personally delivered absentee forms from area voters unsure of the speed or reliability of postal mail return.
The campus is emptier of students than it would be in a non-covid year, but most days so far have featured warm, sunny autumn weather that allows for socially distanced outdoor studying, playing, dining, and waiting in voting lines. We get a fair number of voters who sport NCSU themed masks, shirts or t-shirts. On the second day of voting, it rained until mid-afternoon, but voters waited with umbrellas anyway, and our overall voter total surpassed opening day.
The pandemic has changed some of the logistics of early voting. Our site benefited indirectly from pandemic changes on the campus—we have a much bigger, airier enclosure for this year’s voting process, with 64 socially distanced stations for filling out ballots. All staff members are required to wear protective face masks, with face shields and protective gloves recommended. Each worker’s station has a protective plastic barrier in front of it. Hand sanitizer and cleaning solutions are abundant and frequently used. Extra masks and gloves are available for voters who want them but do not have their own. Voters may opt to vote without masks if they choose, but few so far have made that choice.
The basic voting process remains the same: voters first check in with an application table official to make sure their voting record is current. If all checks out, they take a printed “application to vote” form to a ballot station where they exchange the ATV for one of the many ballot styles for different addresses in our county. Each voter hand-feeds his/her completed ballot into a voting tabulator, with the option of getting an “I voted early” sticker to go with the individual “covid-19 souvenir” pen he/she was given at the voting enclosure entrance. One continuing feature of early voting in North Carolina is “same day registration”—new or new-to-county voters may present appropriate identification to register and vote on the same day.
Voting rules preclude me from taking notes about individual voters, but a few of the voters I’ve processed have been memorable beyond note taking. One older man came in the first or second day, carrying two large tote bags and rolling a suitcase. His skin was roughened, his clothes somewhat worn. His registration information was in the voter database; I couldn’t tell whether his address indicated a homeless shelter.
Partly because our building is near the campus athletic complex, we get a fair number of sports players and coaches of both genders and multiple ethnicities. My favorite so far has been a recently-turned-18 basketball player fresh from practice who appeared with several shorter teammates. His head was well above the top of my plastic barrier. He was careful to maintain social distance while he gave me his name and address. Someone else with exactly the same name, but a different address and earlier birth date, lived in our county.
“Are you by any chance a ‘junior’”? I asked.
“Yes!” he answered. “Would it be hard to add that to my record?”
“No problem.” I always enjoy making the name and address changes that can be done during early voting with minimal hassle.
After I’d made the change and printed out his name change and ATV forms, I noticed an older, less tall gentleman in the background who might have been either a coach or the “senior.” Reassured that his player or son would get to vote unimpeded, the older man left.
Fallow –by Jinny Batterson
My sister’s farm lies fallow,
After an unseasonable frost
Killed off much of the late-
My sister’s body lies fallow
Beneath the rose bushes
She planted when she gave
The farm its name–
“White Rose”–in memory of
The father whose memory fogged
Before he could return to farming.
A fallow North Carolina morning. Foggy.
A looming work assignment
Helped chase me outdoors to unfog
My thoughts before confinement.
As the fog lifted, it gently coaxed out
Memories of a sister
Who tirelessly worked to
Improve the soil and to create
A community that, in due season,
Will birth something new.
Humble Imaginations —by Jinny Batterson
The times we are living through can seem overwhelming—a global pandemic that shows little signs of abating, severe economic dislocations, increases in toxic partisanship, demagoguery, distorted nationalism, militarism. It can sometimes be hard to imagine a better world, a world with more peace, more justice, more compassion.
Current circumstances send me more and more often to prayer and to renewed study of parts of the Christian tradition in which I was raised. A verse that has long both heartened and puzzled me talks of “scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” When I’m in an especially spiteful mood, I imagine the proud being swept aside like fallen leaves during autumn’s first cold storms.
Until I recently looked it up, I’d forgotten this verse’s context. It’s part of a prayer attributed to Mary, the future mother of Jesus, on visiting her cousin Elizabeth when both women are pregnant, as recorded in the gospel of Luke. Often labeled The Magnificat, the passage goes like this (Revised Standard version, Luke, verses 1:46-1:53):
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.”
It’s not clear exactly whom Mary considers the proud or what they might have imagined in their hearts. In Palestine at the time of Luke’s Gospel, there were plenty of candidates.
For much of my life, people have told me I have a vivid imagination. Whatever may be happening “out there” can fade in comparison with what’s going on in my thoughts, prayers, and feelings. Some have called me naive, a bookworm, a dreamer, among other less charitable labels. My readings about imagination have also included a more contemporary rendering by essayist and retired Unitarian-Universalist minister Robert Fulghum:
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge; that myth is more potent than history. I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts; that hope always triumphs over experience; that laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe love is stronger than death.”
I like to think that the imagination Fulghum talks about is different from the imagination in the hearts of the proud. In these fraught and fractured times, we need more humble imaginations. We need to recognize that no earthly power, however brave, wise, or fierce, can solve all our problems. It can be so tempting to believe someone has “the answer.” It can require spiritual discipline to acknowledge the incompleteness of anyone’s “solutions,” to value the questionings and different views of others.
Proud imaginations can be boastful, full of hyperbole and puffery. Humble imaginations are appropriately modest, without discounting their unique and real gifts. Proud imaginations want to act unilaterally; humble imaginations seek allies. Proud imaginations distrust the understandings of others; humble imaginations know that each of us can contain only partial truths. We need interaction to refine and hone our understanding.
May we pray for discernment as we thread these challenging times together. May our imaginations be as humble as our loving is expansive.
Happy New Year, Ruthie —by Jinny Batterson
Diminutive giant of the judiciary,
We mourn your passing,
Even as we celebrate
Your life and legacy.
You left us at the
Beginning of the Sabbath,
At the beginning of
In Jewish tradition,
The celebration of a
New creation, of a New Year.
Those of us still on
This earthly plane
Will have a lot of work
To do later, but for now,
Grieving, rest, restoration,
Plus a heartfelt wish:
Happy New Year, Ruthie!
Goodwill —by Jinny Batterson
In business dealings,
Intangible assets in excess of
The value of bricks and mortar,
In Christmas carols,
What the angels sing of
At the birth of Jesus.
In this conflicted age,
An improbable hope that
Something good will emerge
From this global pandemic:
Our acknowledgment that
Human life is uncertain
And that all life is connected.
What Difference Can a Letter Make? —by Jinny Batterson
Of late the future of the United States Postal Service seems in doubt. Congressional hearings are being held. The recently appointed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has defended his changes in service levels as attempts to streamline the post office’s business practices. Others have questioned whether the changes he is implementing undermine vital services, including a crucial pandemic-era method for casting ballots—by mail.
I’m a fan of the postal service. It’s provided a lifeline, especially during periods when I’ve resided outside the United States. Then, the postal service provided the surest way for me to interact with family and friends back home. Internet access might be spotty or absent, phone lines might go down in earthquakes or other natural disasters, but the mail nearly always got through.
Today, August 26, many in the U.S. celebrate Women’s Equality Day. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution for women’s suffrage: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Many of us know the story of the letter that made a difference in the suffrage fight—a six-page handwritten missive from a widowed mother to her son, Harry T. Burn, a young 24 year-old Republican lawmaker from McMinn County, Tennessee. After hearing a scathing denunciation of the amendment by one of her son’s legislative mentors, Febb Burn was moved to include a gentle rebuttal in her letter, nestled among descriptions of doings on the family farm. She closed with a suggestion, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt…(a longtime suffragist).” When Burn broke a previous tie in the Tennessee legislature to support suffrage, others at first thought he’d made a mistake. He had not. He’d opted for conscience and the advice of his mother over political expedience in his heavily conservative district. (For a lengthier account, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/local/history/tennessee-19-amendment-letter-harry-burn-mother-febb/ ).
My family has a different letter that made a difference. It was written by an Army corporal serving in Germany. My uncle, John Voris, loved learning. He described in his letter that he’d sent a big batch of books home, and hoped for a new shipment soon. “About the books, … I try to keep one or two about me all the time. You see that four years in the army represents a big hole in your life. I try to keep studying and reading so that I can salvage some of these years, in part at least.”
Much of the November, 1944 letter describes his prior campaigns and the bronze star he’d just been awarded. What made and makes the letter special is that it was received by his family at about the same time as the telegram informing them that he had been killed in action. While the letter couldn’t bring John back, it helped assuage their grief. His younger sister, a printer, had the letter typeset and distributed. It has been passed down from generation to generation. Along with a few pictures, it’s all we have to remind us of an idealistic young soldier who didn’t live to see the next peacetime.
The Febb Burn letter is now displayed in a museum. Most family mementoes have a less illustrious place, but they are still special. Our emails, tweets and instagram posts are not likely to replace them. So take the time to write a postal letter to someone you care about. Maybe write to the Postmaster General, too. Letters make a difference.
Using Tools Wisely —by Jinny Batterson
My parents, long dead now, got most of their early schooling in relatively sparse classrooms. My dad attended grades one through seven in a two-room schoolhouse that was still standing, if derelict, when I was a child. On one of our Sunday afternoon rambles in the family station wagon, we stopped to see it. The wooden structure, built on raised posts, was set in a grove of trees at the edge of a small country road. Its door had a padlock, but, with a boost from Dad, we could look in through a couple of windows whose glass had long been missing. Only a few benches remained inside. Gone was the blackboard where Dad said students had practiced their sums and letters. Near the center of the structure on the floor was a metal platform. Dad explained that the platform had partially protected the rest of the structure from the potbellied stove (now also gone) that had provided the school’s only heat. Feeding wood into the stove had been a job reserved for the teacher or for responsible older students, since errors could result in either too little heat or a bad fire.
Much of what our parents shared with us from their early schooling were poems or essays they remembered having read in their texts all those years ago. The memorization tasks they set for us may have been a partial 1950’s equivalent to some of today’s at home “virtual learning.” They’d ask us to learn, then recite from memory, some of their favorite poems, like Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” about Mudville’s baseball team and its famed but ill-fated slugger. Somewhat more somberly, they introduced us to the Klondike gold rush via Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”
The old schoolhouse selection that has come back to me most often lately, though, is an adaption of Charles Lamb’s “A Dissertation on Roast Pig.” The adapted essay was likely an entry in one of the “graded readers” that both my dad and my mom learned from. (A Gutenberg project link to Charles Lamb’s entire essay can be found at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43566/43566-h/43566-h.htm. )
According to Lamb’s account, likely neither true nor fact checked, roast pig first arose as a result of a house fire. A Chinese peasant had left his careless son in charge of the family homestead while he ran some errands. The son accidentally spread some sparks onto a bale of straw that then set the whole house ablaze. The building, a relatively insubstantial hut akin to the straw or stick houses built by the first or second of the “Three Little Pigs,” burned completely to the ground. Poking around amid the rubble, the son noticed a delicious aroma, and eventually determined that it was coming from the skin and flesh of a piglet, one of several who had been unfortunate collateral damage in the fire. After he tasted it, the son wolfed down the rest of the scorched creature. By the time his father arrived back on the scene, he’d started to devour a second piglet. The son avoided punishment by introducing his father to the roast delicacy—a huge improvement on the raw meat, grains, and vegetables that had previously made up the peasants’ diet. It took a while before the peasantry adjusted their practices so that roast pigs could be obtained without pyromania. Taming fire, using it wisely, was and is an ongoing effort.
You can likely see where I’m going with this. Our burgeoning online environment has spawned some of the same excesses as the pyromania that, per Lamb’s essay, originally attended roast pigs. We hear almost daily about “tweet storms” and various distortions, half-truths, conspiracy theories and blatant lies circulating on the internet. The “world wide web” has proved to be a hugely important adjunct to many of our former ways of communicating, but it is susceptible to abuses that, unchecked, can burn down more than houses. Can we in time figure out ways to enjoy our virtual “roast pigs” more safely and wisely?
Valuing Connections, Finding Joy —by Jinny Batterson
The corona virus pandemic has impacted every nation on earth, few more severely than the United States of America, which has rarely seemed less united. Many of us, especially if we are older, have mostly hunkered down in physical isolation at home (assuming we have a home), venturing out rarely, masked and sanitized, for shopping or medical appointments. It’s easy to feel disconnected.
An American friend who’s widely traveled and now makes her home in France sent me a link to a lengthy article by Colombian-Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis. His early August 2020 commentary is titled “The Unraveling of America,” and includes this quotation:
“In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the world.” (You can read the entire article at https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/?fbclid=IwAR1STn3hp2VywUqvGxjPpSUqMItAGBnF7oEPorxsZ1OeUZERQbrTpSHEe78.)
Some of us Americans are still involved in blaming each other for the mess we currently find ourselves in. Some are foolishly conflating “freedom” with the license to spread harm via a tiny airborne pathogen none of us can see. Some, though, are also remembering glimmers of our underlying interconnectedness, even while physical distancing remains an important tool for reducing the spread of illness, misery, and death.
Earlier today, I attended this week’s “Friday Action Parking Lot” event at our mostly distanced congregation, a sort of modified “tailgate party.” Since March, Sunday services and most weekday meetings have gone virtual, but we’ve adapted some of our sharing practices to fit our changed circumstances. Before the pandemic, we participated, along with other religious groups and non-profits, in various feeding and affordable housing programs. Hosting an in-person group luncheon is no longer practical, but food still needs to be provided. Lengthy in-person visits to affordable housing complexes are not advisable, either, but families whose children may soon continue “virtual” schooling in apartments lacking air conditioning could really use donated portable fans. Each week a virtual call goes out via email for items especially needed—this week, in addition to fans, there was a premium on face masks and reusable grocery bags.
If few in our congregation are among the wealthiest, few are destitute, either. It’s important to maintain connections with others who may be economically challenged at the moment, for a whole host of reasons. One of the strongest is that we are all inevitably interconnected, so generosity helps maintain health and brings joy.
Recently I picked up some books ordered online from my favorite local bookshop, which now has “book take-out.” As I’d ordered a different book by a favorite author, another book he’d co-authored came up as a possible selection: The Book of Joy. The title was especially appealing. Once I got my treasures home, I found the book jacket cover of two famous octogenarians broadly smiling at each other worth the price of the book all by itself. Created from notes and insights garnered during an in-person 2015 meeting between Desmond Tutu, retired Archbishop of South Africa and convener of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Tensin Gyatso, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Book of Joy chronicles some of these two Nobel Peace Laureates struggles along the way to developing abiding senses of joy. It examines “eight pillars of joy:” perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and, finally, generosity.
Tutu speaks from his religious tradition about the importance of generosity: “I’ve sometimes joked and said God doesn’t know very much math, because when you give to others, it should be that you are subtracting from yourself. But in this incredible kind of way … you give and it then seems in fact you are making space for more to be given to you.”
“And there is a very physical example. The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank. I mean, it just goes bad. And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. …And we are made much that way, too. I mean, we receive and we must give. In the end generosity is the best way of becoming more, more, and more joyful.”