Category Archives: Everyday Wonders

Fallow

Fallow   –by Jinny Batterson

Farmhouse in November snow, 2018

My sister’s farm lies fallow,
After an unseasonable frost
Killed off much of the late-
Season garden.

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.

Goodwill

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?

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

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?    

Wild Berries

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
Indoor spaces.

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
Is malevolent.

Noticing a Tailwind

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.   

 

The Flowers Have Not (Yet) Gone

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. 

lilies and black-eyed susans near our central NC condo

Flowers near our central NC condo

The Veggie Bacon-Cheeseburger

The Veggie Bacon-Cheeseburger    —by Jinny Batterson

Our family celebrations have nearly always involved food. Back in the days when extended family dinners with more than ten members were permissible, we’d gather for most major holidays around an abundantly filled dining table. 

Over time, food sensitivities for the older generation have increased; our consumption of sugar-laden or fat-laden choices has become more limited. Some in all generations have long-standing food allergies, which need to be factored in when cooking for the entire group. We span a broader range of ethnic cooking preferences than our parents’ generation ever thought of. Some in the generation now entering middle age stick pretty close to the “meat and potatoes” regimen of their childhoods, while others have decided to become vegetarian. They exhort the rest of us to follow their example. 

Numerous studies point to a mainly plant-based diet as healthier both for individuals and for the environment. Plants generally have less cholesterol and other not-good-for-you’s. They require fewer inputs per usable calorie than any sort of meat. They do not require lots of land. Plants do not get confined in tightly spaced feeding pens like the less-humane livestock practices.

Before covid-19 appeared on the scene, I’d begun experiments with meat substitutes and with more veggie-friendly meals.

Of course, the current virus pandemic has temporarily upended our food system, along with diminishing the chances for big family gatherings. For the near term, we’ll continue to eat most of our meals at home in our nuclear families. No weekly restaurant explorations. Less frequent take-out meals, even, as some of our favorite area small restaurants close. Those of us still lucky enough to have incomes continue to have broader choices in our shopping and eating habits. The best choices we can make often involve shopping carefully at small local groceries and farmers’ markets to help them stay in business, plus contributing to local food banks and emergency food supply efforts.

For family meals, I’ve tried to continue a more-vegetarian pattern. However, I have yet to find a burger substitute that is quite as satisfying as a “real” meaty burger.  When I recently looked into the fridge for inspiration for supper, I pulled out a couple patties of a not-yet-taste-tested brand of veggie burger.   

“They’d taste much better with some bacon on top,” my husband interjected. Last week, when it had been his turn to mask up and brave the grocery stores, he’d brought home a substantial package of deli-style real bacon. Our stock of cheeses was generous, so I topped off each burger-plus-bacon-on-toast with a slice of Swiss, melting it via a few seconds in the microwave. The result was a good bit tastier than plain veggie burgers. 

It was not until a later phone check-in with a non-vegetarian son that we got gently reminded of the incongruity of a veggie bacon-cheeseburger.  As all of us continue to navigate this novel pandemic, may most of the incongruities we encounter be this benign. Please take good care, all!  

Shoelaces and Scrunchies

Shoelaces and Scrunchies   —by Jinny Batterson

Our local newspaper recently
Inserted an unusual item, tucked away on a
Back page away from distressing headlines:
A printed sewing pattern with instructions.
The pattern seems simple enough,
A productive use of some stay-at-home time.

I find an unused cloth shower curtain,
Some leftover curtain lining fabric,
Retrieve an aged sewing machine from a closet.
My first step-by-step effort takes hours
And hours. The four ties take the longest:
Eighteen inch lengths double folded to just a third
Of an inch wide, then stitched and restitched
Into each corner of a smallish rectangle.
There must be an easier way.

Our local craft outlet is temporarily closed,
So I troll the aisles of the nearest big box store:
Aha! shoelaces, right width, nearly right length, still in
Ample supply. I choose a half dozen packages, careful
To leave some for other impromptu seamstresses.

The laces increase my output substantially.
Soon I have a completed stock for family, close neighbors.
After my initial supply has run out, a younger neighbor requests
More. “Got any new shoelaces?” I ask her.
Instead, she supplies scrunchies–those circular hair ties worn
By Olympic gymnasts and high school cheerleaders.
More elastic and less cumbersome than shoelaces.

A few more completed each day, overstitched into
Half moon shapes. When I go to get a leaking tire
Checked, a helpful technician takes one.
“Nice,” he tells me. “It doesn’t steam up my glasses,
And the fabric pattern looks a little like camo.” 

We all are doing our best to camouflage
The impact of a tiny virus that has upended so
Many of our prospects.

 

Earth Has Its Day

Earth Has Its Day   —by Jinny Batterson

Had this been a “normal” year, there would have been big crowds today commemorating the 50th annual Earth Day. There would have been lots of in-person speeches. There would have been live exhibits from corporations and non-profits with a mixture of important initiatives and “greenwashing,” spotlighting small impacts for mainly public relations value. There would have been more exhortations to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” 

This is not a normal year. A small pathogen whose exact origin is still unclear began spreading a respiratory ailment among the global human population in late 2019. As of today, covid-19 had caused nearly 2.5 million known infections and nearly 170,000 deaths. Much of the globe’s human population is on “lockdown.” Public gatherings are few. 

In parts of the world, other variations in nature are wreaking havoc in different ways: a plague of locusts in east Africa is destroying food crops, threatening the food supply of tens of millions; forest fires in Ukraine near the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant have recently caused the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to have the worst air pollution of any place in the world; widespread bush fires during Australia’s 2019-2020 summer have blackened millions of acres and killed roughly a billion animals, endangering such unique species as kangaroos and koalas and putting Australia’s agricultural sector at risk; Greenland and Antarctica have ice sheets that are melting at increasing rates. 

Perhaps earth is reminding us, in increasingly urgent terms, that we are not the masters of the planet, but its guests and its (temporary) stewards. 

For much of my adult life, I’ve accumulated a clipping file of quotations and short pieces of prose that seem meaningful to me. During a personal or societal crisis, I reread them for wisdom. A while ago, I came across the World War II era diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, War Without and Within, edited and first published long after that war was over, in 1980. Anne and her husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh, had spent part of the 1930’s living in Europe to regain some privacy after the highly publicized U.S. kidnapping and murder of their first child.  A pacifist often identified with her isolationist husband, Anne was deeply affected by the 1939 onset of war in Europe and the entry of the U.S. into a globalized conflict in late 1941. A diary entry from Easter Monday during the spring of 1942 expresses both sorrow and hope: 

“Today is the real Easter morning. Yesterday was overcast and chilly. This morning is still, warm, newly awakened. One walks out into it like a flower just opened. …
When I was young, I always felt a morning like this meant a promise of something wonderful … love in someone’s heart far away from me, or the success of some venture of my own. I thought–quite literally–it was a sign from heaven. The person who was ill would get well. … Or maybe something wonderful was happening for the world–some new spirit blooming. … the morning was a ‘sign.’
I still believe it is a ‘sign,’ but not for anything good happening to me or the world, anything specific. The love is not blooming in someone’s heart. The ventures fail. The one who is sick, dies, and the one who is lost is never found. Hate and cruelty and evil are still rampant, war goes on.
And yet it is a sign. It is a sign that in spite of these things beauty still exists and goes on side by side with horror. That there is love and goodness and beauty and spirit in the world–always. This is only one of the times when it is clothed in flesh–in the flesh of a spring morning.”

Amid the global concern about the covid-19 pandemic and the seemingly unending series of recriminations about whose “fault” the pandemic is, there have been occasional notes of clearer air in unexpected places, of a resurgence of birdsong alongside nearly empty highways. 

This morning where I live dawned crisp, cool, bright, with almost jewel-like clarity. May it be a sign. Happy Earth Day!