Category Archives: Everyday Wonders

Exceeding Expectations–Three Score Years and Eleven

Exceeding Expectations: Three Score Years and Eleven    —by Jinny Batterson

My birthday happens this month.  As I age, the years tend to go by more and more quickly. Overall, it’s been a marvelous ride so far. 

Having a spring birthday is a quirk of my arrival on earth for which I’m very grateful—spring is generally such a hopeful time of year.  Most of my birthdays have long since slipped out of memory, though a few have associations that persist: 

—my 5th birthday, the first after the birth of my younger sister, when my mother staged outdoor scavenger games in our small yard. The weather was wonderfully warm and sunny; several friends came to enjoy prizes and homemade birthday cake. For one glorious day, I didn’t have to share the limelight with the cute, dimpled new baby.

—my 11th birthday, the final year I spent in the cramped first house our family lived in, before moving to a much larger house that summer.

—my 21st birthday, when I was nearly finished college and got engaged over my birthday weekend to my future husband.

—my 30th birthday, when I was pregnant with our younger child, and we staged an “over the hill party” with friends and colleagues.

—my 50th birthday, when our children were both grown and living elsewhere and I treated myself to a decadent chocolate cake.

At the time I was born, between 1940 and 1950, life expectancy for white women was between 67 and 72 years, increasing each decade. The small liberal arts school I was attending when my twentieth birthday arrived had a college springtime tradition: attaching short poems to a weeping cherry tree in front of an ivy-festooned brick classroom building. Often a handwritten copy of A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” was among the offerings:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Back then three score years and ten seemed impossibly old—older even than my parents, aunts, and uncles in our long-generation family.

In the part of North Carolina where I now live, early spring days in 2018 have seen more than one frosting of actual snow, so warmer days and cherry trees hung with blooms are most welcome.  In our woodlands, white-blossomed cherries share center stage with white and pink dogwoods plus redbud trees whose smallish flowers are more pink than red. Along major roads and interstates this year, an extensive array of big, blowsy lavender wisteria clusters has draped adjacent trees. 

And I’ve had the chance to watch the “woodland ride” now for threescore years and eleven—a wonderful bonus. Happy springtime, y’all, wherever you spend it!       

Spring Hopes Eternal

Spring Hopes Eternal   –by Jinny Batterson

It was a rough winter–
Seesawing temperatures, sniffles, scandals
shootings,
Bluster and traded insults
masquerading as diplomacy.

Yet spring again comes:
Dandelions, daffodils do their duty, even in snow,
As sun-colored harbingers of later blossoms.
Local ponds welcome migrating flocks;
The woods are awash in birdsong.

The soul stirs, throwing off its
somnolent blanket.
What new creation will we grow
now that spring has come again?

 

 

Dragon Kites on Tiananmen Square

Dragon Kites on Tiananmen Square    —by Jinny Batterson

(Portions of this post have been adapted from my upcoming book, Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)

A growing number of locations world-wide are sponsoring kite festivals. In the town where I now live, March winds bring out people of all ages, eager to enjoy the outdoors as winter ebbs, to search for just the right spot and orientation to launch their creations skyward. The basic homemade wrapping-paper-and-balsa-strut diamond shaped kites I flew as a child pale in comparison with the elaborate heirloom and contemporary kites that participate in some of these festivals. A quick internet search turned up an American-based kite flyers association with members in 25 countries, with at least one U.S.-based festival in every month of the year.  (http://kite.org/activities/events/event-calendar/)

One blustery spring day in 2000 on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, I got to see a few of the world’s most cherished, most elaborate kites. My husband and I were partway through a tourist stay in Beijing. Our first two days had been filled with organized guided tours: the Forbidden City, a nearby section of the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, some of the subterranean tunnels built under the modern city during the 1960’s and 1970’s to shelter residents in the event of a bombing attack by “the Soviets or another country,” as our tour guide put it. Now we had a free day to explore on our own. We decided to return to the vicinity of Tiananmen Square.

As we approached, we noticed several box kites bobbing and weaving in the sky above.  Once on the square itself, we found several older men preparing their heirloom dragon kites for flight. The kites, nearly fifty feet long, had extensive tails made of circles of paper glued to lightweight wooden rings, all linked together by three parallel strings that ran the kites’ entire length and could be used for steering. The rings were decorated with sturdy feathers for stability. Only when the tail was almost fully aloft was the dragon-shaped head of the kite attached and quickly pulled skyward. We watched until our necks cramped from craning upward. We had little language to express our amazement—Jim gave a thumbs up sign. Perhaps our rapt attention was language enough.

Groundhog

Groundhog  —by Jinny Batterson

Harbinger of spring, furry cousin of a squirrel,
We celebrate your special day
By snatching you from burrow and sleep
To blink at the light–strong sun means longer winter.

Midway between poinsettia and forsythia,
We want a fellow creature to provide some assurance
That winter will end–a prognostication from one
Who also dislikes freezing cold and biting storms.

You don’t much care about the splendor of the overcoats,
Scarves, or top hats of those who briefly torment you.
Their race, religion, creed, or politics also matter little.

What’s more important Is that they make their
Ceremony short, so that you can return to needed
Rest before the frenzy of spring.

Plump marmot, I salute you; I beg for
Your wisdom to forebear when poked and prodded
And made to squint in uncomfortable directions.

And, yes, I want to believe that spring is on its way,
Whatever its speed.

Living at the Bottom of a Hill

Living at the Bottom of a Hill    —by Jinny Batterson

When we first purchased our most recent home, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to its topography.  Mostly I noticed that it was within easy walking distance of the home where one of our grown children then lived. Another plus to our downsize-for-retirement condo was that it was only about 10 minutes’ drive from our regional airport—a boon for visiting further-off family and friends. It sat on a small lot on one of two adjacent loops of privately maintained road near a major interstate in the central North Carolina piedmont. 

I soon warmed to the flexibility and freedom that living in a condo afforded: exterior maintenance, including most lawn care and landscaping, was handled by our homeowners’ association for a small monthly fee. Because our unit’s previous owners had been handy do-it-yourselfers, initially we had little indoor maintenance, either. For the first couple of years we owned the place, we spent as much time away from it traveling as we did “at home,” finding it in good shape whenever we returned.   

It was not until my first year of living in the condo full-time that I discovered a few downsides to our new living quarters. Along with the maintenance provided by the condo association came a good many rules and restrictions, some of which I learned about only after violating them. Then there was the smallness of the yard—rather than the previous acre-plus I’d had to garden in, the area of land that went with our unit was tiny: a small sliver in front and another small sliver with a northern exposure in back between an overhanging deck and a common area of woodland. The worst, though, was storm drainage.

front walk in hard rain

The four-unit building where we had one of the middle units sat near the bottom of a rather steep hill. Whenever we had what my mom would have called a “gully washer,” puddles formed along our front walk. Water seeped through our unfinished basement, whose back area of concrete slab was about ten feet lower than its roughly graded dirt-floored front. Rainwater from buildings further up the slopes came rushing down, washing away sod and lawn, silting in our minuscule back yard, causing deepening gashes in the landscape, piling up gravel and debris against bases of trees in the woodland commons, accelerating disease and decay. 

front yard washing away

Walking or driving in other areas of our hilly town, I took note of large scale efforts to deal with this “bottom of the hill” effect: retaining walls twenty or more feet high, stream buffers of woodland and brush, gravel or paved greenways along creeks, truckloads and truckloads of rocks and pebbles dumped along steep slopes and into low-lying areas, retention ponds of many sizes and shapes.

I became a late-life-learner about the rudiments of smaller-scale erosion control—appropriate landscape plants, rain gardens, check dams, terracing, mulch, mulch, and more mulch. Within the confines of our HOA’s covenants, sometimes to the annoyance of my neighbors, I’ve tried to find ways to reduce storm run-off and redirect it into less destructive channels. Progress is slow and intermittent. My guess is that there will never be a permanent solution, and that as the climate continues to change, the challenges of living near the bottoms of hills will become more severe.

Still, I’ve decided, there’s no better landscape in which to live. Flat areas can be just as damaged by prolonged rain events as hills. (Remember 2016’s Hurricane Matthew in eastern North Carolina or 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Houston?) Living on the crests of hills or mountains poses other challenges—water supplies do not arrive uphill unaided; lightning favors ridge tops. So I’ll keep working at stewarding this little plot that is mine for a time. By and by, the gullies may wash less destructively.             

Why I’m Glad Our Granddaughter is a Girl Scout

Why I’m Glad Our Granddaughter is a Girl Scout    —by Jinny Batterson

I recently spent a week of after-Christmas visit with parts of the next generations of our family on the U.S. West Coast. As visiting grandma, I got to attend some of the children’s after school activities, including a meeting of our granddaughter’s “Daisies and Brownies” troop. Before the meeting, I was curious about how this branch of Girl Scouting had evolved in the generations since I started Brownies in the 1950’s. At first, lacking everyday exposure to younger children, I found this recent meeting’s hubbub a little daunting, though it’s likely that little girls are no more or less squirmy and giggly than my friends and I were so many years ago. For starters, girls now can become “Daisies” a year or two younger than the Brownie program I entered in second grade.  Still, I recognized parts of the program: an opening circle and a check-in when each girl could relate any important events or concerns, lots of singing, lots of running around, a craft activity, time outdoors, a pledge to honor oneself and others, a short-term service project, plus an introduction to this year’s annual cookie sales campaign for the scouts, parents, and grandparents present.

Since the meeting, I’ve ruminated a bit about why I’m glad our granddaughter is in Girl Scouting. Some American girls recently gained admission to Boy Scout troops. The “#metoo” social media movement has gained wide publicity for its attempts to reduce the incidence of sexual assault and sexual harassment (something the Girl Scouts have been doing with less fanfare for decades). Why continue to be a Girl Scout in these changing times?

Based on my previous exposure and my brief reconnection through my granddaughter, these are several aspects that still seem important to me:

—revolving skills-based leadership within a basic structure. No one person has all the skills needed for the many different situations life will throw at us. In Scouting, some will excel at crafts, while others can organize; some are adept song leaders; some have sports skills; some are tech-savvy; still others are gifted at laying campfires. In the troop where I was a member, one girl, Cheryl, was somewhat less athletic than most, not good at crafts, a reluctant camper, quiet and shy. The rest of us knew, though, that she was very important to our troop. She had a family asset missing to the rest of us: her mom worked at a large nearby military base. At cookie sales time, it was Cheryl’s turn to be a star. Though the rest of us were a little jealous as she loaded the family station wagon full of cartons of cookies for distribution, we knew her work was vital to reaching our sales goals each year.

—an international focus in addition to the local, state, and national civic engagement of each Girl Scout. For me, this was best exemplified by the first international Scouting center, a chalet in the Swiss Alps that opened in 1932. Many Scouts know the “Chalet song” with its aspirational closing: “And this its dedication shall never fail nor be undone, each race, each creed, each nation beneath its roof are one.”  The Chalet is now the oldest of five operating international centers, including a recently organized rotating event space among Girl Scouts in Africa. 

—An affirmation of the worth of each individual, along with the importance of working together toward common goals. Like Cheryl in our troop long ago, some Scouts will have less readily visible skills, but Girl Scouting teaches that each of us has an important role to play. No one is inconsequential. When we get overly invested in a “great leader” model, it can be all too easy to forget this basic truth.   

  About this time last year, I was a local participant in one of many “Women’s Marches” that occurred globally on the third weekend of January. At this year’s anniversary weekend, I’ll have to track hometown activities from afar. Yet after having observed our granddaughter’s Girl Scout troop, I’m heartened that, if and when we forget to value all the world’s citizens, she and others like her will continue to show up to remind us:  all of us matter, including women and girls.   

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version

Chinese Lantern Festival, An American Version  –by Jinny Batterson

Lantern Festival Lion

Happy (Western) New Year!  As global cultures mingle more often, more of us Americans of all backgrounds are getting exposure to holidays and calendars celebrated elsewhere.  For the past three years, a traveling exhibit of lighted silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter, a little earlier than the period of “Chinese New Year,” which typically occurs in late January or early February and includes a lantern festival on its final day.

Lantern Festival Dragon

Yesterday I braved colder than normal temperatures to see this year’s display at a local outdoor amphitheater that otherwise would be shuttered for the season. This year’s North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival was bigger and better than ever, its signature lake-surface dragon periodically spouting water rather than fire into the frigid air.  Weather had diminished last night’s crowds somewhat, but not the enthusiasm of those who braved the elements, sometimes fortified with spiked hot chocolate or coffee. Most of the twenty-five major complexes of lights had placards describing them in both English and Chinese. 

“Lantern festival” in China is an old celebration, thought to have originated almost two thousand years ago, celebrated at the first new moon of the lunar new year, the final day of the two-week Chinese Spring Festival celebration.  According to legend, a leading Chinese deity, the Jade Emperor, was angry with villagers for killing a crane, one of his favorite birds. He planned to send down fire to destroy the village, but the villagers, warned by the emperor’s daughter, hung red lanterns around their houses, set off firecrackers, and lit bonfires in the streets, tricking the emperor into thinking the village was already on fire and thus saving the village. Ever since, in towns and villages throughout China, people parade with lanterns on the evening of  Lantern Festival.  If you have a chance to see the North Carolina version, please wear plenty of layers, and prepare to revel in winter light.   

Waiting for the Sunday Paper Carrier

Waiting for the Sunday Paper Carrier   —by Jinny Batterson

One of the things I notice as I continue to age are some cultural habits I picked up in an earlier, slower, more personalized time, habits less practiced in our increasingly rushed and electronically mediated society. This season makes me especially aware of the ongoing shifts. I still address postal holiday cards, prowl store aisles searching for an appropriate gift for a “secret Santa giftee,” and prepare small cash “bonus” envelopes for the public and private service providers who help make my life more comfortable throughout the year:

—the landscaping crew that cuts my lawn and maintains the shrubbery near our condo;

—the mail carrier who lugs sacks full of promotional brochures, catalogs and magazines, along with the occasional piece of personal correspondence, to our neighborhood mail station;

—the recycling crew that regularly picks up our cast-off bottles, cans, and papers;

—the newspaper delivery person who throws our Sunday paper, well-protected inside plastic sleeves against cold and damp, onto my front stoop each week.   

One of the aspects of retirement I relish most is the increased flexibility in my schedule. If I want to stay in my jammies until 10, on most days I can. If I prefer to avoid driving during rush hour, I can usually adapt my errands so they are done on off-peak days and at off-peak hours. Sometimes I can even take the local transit bus and not drive at all! 

Scheduling flexibility is a special gift at the holidays. Being at home so I can flag down a member of the lawn crew a couple of weeks before Christmas and hand him a holiday envelope gives nearly as much satisfaction to me as to the lawn crew members. It’s a little harder to catch the recyclers, slightly less regular in their schedule, but I can typically hear their truck coming with enough advance notice to run out and give them their card.  Catching the mail carrier on his/her rounds is harder still, since mail delivery times are pretty variable, especially at this time of year. Also, our mailbox station is out of immediate sight of our condo. However, by putting the holiday bonus envelope at the far back of my mail slot, I can be fairly confident the mail carrier will pick it up before depositing the following day’s mail.

That leaves only the newspaper deliverer.  Only rarely am I aware of the arrival of the Sunday paper—if I happen to be up using the bathroom in the predawn hours, or sometimes if the newspaper catches a corner of our front steps with a louder-than-usual thunk.  So last weekend I wasn’t sure how early I would need to set a wake-up alarm in order to catch the delivery van on its rounds. I guessed that 5 a.m. would be early enough.    

Turns out, I had about an hour to spare, which I spent watching early morning news (on this particular day somewhat less shrill than prime time, a blessing!) and reading part of a library book. I hope our deliverer has good plans for the small tip I was able to provide; I got a lot of satisfaction from actually meeting her, and thanking her for another year of reliable service.  Seeing her smile made my holiday happier.  Then, due to my happily retired state, I ended my early morning vigil by going back inside, casting a quick glance at the comics and the headlines, taking off my robe and slippers, and putting me and my jammies back to bed. 

Quilted Dreams

Quilted Dreams    —by Jinny Batterson

There’ve been times, since I outgrew visions of sugarplums,
When I’ve dreaded the coming of winter. Short days, short tempers, cold,
Damp, sniffles, indoor confinement. Winter’s had little to recommend it.

This year’s cold weather was late arriving. Days shortened, but it was
Nearly Thanksgiving before there was frost on the pumpkins. Our schedules
Got disrupted: when to test the furnace, bring houseplants indoors?

Finally, the evening arrived when a blanket was insufficient warmth.
The quilt could be brought out from the linen closet, shaken vigorously,
Then inserted between a fresh sheet and the all-season bedspread.

As my life has grown less hectic, I’ve come to relish the longer
Darkness of late autumn: a chance to sip cocoa before snuggling down
Early, perhaps to drift into episodes of remembered dreams.

I cannot guarantee that the quilt is the cause, but cold weather
Seems to bring more comforting visions: brilliant landscapes visited
Earlier in person or in imagination, peopled with friends and warm welcomes. 

Often I visit cities new to me, revel in explorations and travel that
Can be more pleasant in dreams than in reality–no crowded
Rail cars, no plugged toilets, no mewling youngsters in the seat behind.

The details no longer matter as much. It’s the comfort that counts.
Even when my mind and body are saddest, my waking
Anxieties will sometimes give way to quilted dreams.

Veterans of Domestic Elections

Veterans of Domestic Elections    —by Jinny Batterson

Last Tuesday, I got up before 5 a.m., put on multiple layers of clothes, grabbed a hurried breakfast, packed water and snacks, then headed for a nearby precinct where I was assigned to work during this year’s municipal elections. This year was the third year I’ve served as a non-partisan precinct officer during early voting and/or on election days, after receiving initial training and participating in annual refresher courses.

A touchstone of our training is to do everything in our power to allow a prospective voter to cast a ballot. As our political process has become more divisive and hyper-partisan, this can be complicated. Successive gerrymanders and court challenges have sometimes moved voters from one jurisdiction to another, even when they have not physically changed address. Economic downturns and regional disparities have caused other voters to relocate, often without the will or the resources to become aware of issues, candidates, or election dates and procedures in their new locales. Identification requirements have changed frequently and can be confusing, even to precinct workers. Some prospective voters are homeless, making address verification especially difficult.

Luckily for me, the precinct where I worked in this year’s election was relatively stable. Interest in the election was high, with contested races for town mayor and several town council seats. During the nearly thirteen hours from the time our doors opened for voting until the final voter revved his car into the parking lot and panted his way through the precinct entrance a minute before closing, we were rarely idle. Seven of us combined our efforts to perform needed precinct tasks: we verified names and addresses, authorized voting for those properly registered, handed out ballots, answered questions, redirected those who’d showed up at the wrong precinct, gently dissuaded those who’d showed up on the wrong date, provided advice and provisional ballots for those whose voting status was in question, thanked citizens for voting and gave them “I voted” stickers, checked and cross-checked voting tallies to make sure our manual and automated counts stayed reconciled.

A few days after the election came Veterans’ Day. Originally established as a holiday to commemorate the armistice that ended the “war to end all wars” on November 11, 1918 at 11 a.m. and later expanded to include all U.S. veterans, we’ve sometimes degraded the day’s significance. Rather than a reflection on the tragedies and sacrifices of war, we’ve sometimes substituted a jingoistic, commercial-laden extravaganza of pious political sloganeering and holiday sales. The original meaning of Veterans’ Day came home to me more clearly the following day, a Sunday, when our religious congregation honored the living veterans in our community of worshipers and seekers. Some in this varied lot of men and women, ranging from oldsters to those barely out of their teens, had endured hardships and dangers much more severe than the uncomfortable chairs and brief days’ spells of disrupted eating I’d experienced. Yet their sacrifices were partly in service to the work I’d recently participated in. The values we hold dear—fairness, humility, compassion, inclusion—have been fought for at the ballot box as courageously as on any battlefield.

One of our oldest and largest veterans’ rights organizations, Veterans of Foreign Wars, states its mission as honoring veterans’ service, plus making sure veterans get the full benefits they deserve. To ensure this, the group lobbies as an organization, but much of its strength comes from members’ capacity and willingness to vote.

Helping preserve our values and our democracy requires free and fair elections in which as many of us as possible participate. My election-assistance services are episodic and short-lived, but important nevertheless. I’m glad to be among the veterans of domestic elections.