Category Archives: Everyday Wonders

Falling into Grace

Falling into Grace    —by Jinny Batterson

Grace Church, the church of my childhood,
Smelled of furniture polish, dust, and old masonry.
It sat squat, tucked into a hillside above a graveyard
Where my mother, at twelve, had sledded into a
Headstone, chipping both front teeth.

From behind the altar, stained-glass-filtered light
Shone on the choir stall where I sat, searching in the
Back of the Book of Common Prayer for my springtime
Birth date in the schedule for each year’s Easter.

My cousin, Grace, came for a week’s visit
As we both teetered at the edge of adolescence.
She had an athletic build, a mane of blond hair.
Not self-conscious about her body like I was,
She shed her day clothes before bed, revealing
The beginnings of breasts and pubes where
I was still flat and hairless.

During college jaunts to the small Shenandoah
Valley town where my boyfriend studied, I walked
Past a different church. Early in the 20th century, it
Was renamed to honor a fallen general with a mixed
Legacy that has become increasingly problematic
In our post-Charlottesville polarizations. 
.

My childhood church is still there, if little used.
My cousin Grace died after a horse riding accident.
Reverting to its original name, Grace Episcopal
In Lexington, Virginia struggles for reconciliation.
Nostalgia renders all more graceful.

It’s the season of falling—leaves blush, then let go.
We notice lengthening darkness, tremble at dark events.
When we pay attention, though, we still have access to
Qualities of bearing, blessing, benediction:
There’s still the possibility of falling into grace.

 

Advertisements

Cycling Toward Resilience

Cycling Toward Resilience    —by Jinny Batterson

bicycling for fun–Jinny fords a small stream in New Zealand

September 22, 2017, according to my wall calendar, marks this year’s equinox, ushering in autumn in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern. It’s the day when the sun’s arc passes directly over the earth’s equator, when day and night are of nearly equal length. It would seem to indicate a sort of balance. For many of us, balance right now is in somewhat short supply.

Broadcast news these days carries stories and images of catastrophic damage to the U.S. Southeast and American territories in the Caribbean from three different hurricanes so far this season. Parts of Texas and Florida, all of Puerto Rico and most of the U.S. Virgin Islands may never again be the same after Harvey, Irma, and Maria. And hurricane season isn’t even over yet. Meanwhile, swaths of eastern North Carolina have yet to recover from last year’s Hurricane Matthew damage. Parts of New Orleans have atrophied since Katrina’s 2005 onslaught. Five years after superstorm Sandy, houses in New York and New Jersey are still boarded up.

Locally, our town is balancing on the cusp of another municipal election, with multiple candidates in each race this time around. Last night I attended a candidate’s forum co-sponsored by  several non-partisan volunteer groups. The crowd was standing room only, the tone civil, the questions and answers thoughtful and generally restrained—no promises to hold the line on taxes, no shirking from admissions that both infrastructure and population in our community are aging, that revenues since the 2008 recession have not kept up with population growth, that we face challenges.  A couple of incumbents emphasized the need to move away from our current high dependence on private vehicles toward a greater use of walking, cycling, and public transit. 

So I got to thinking about bicycles. A pre-hurricane posting to a San Juan, Puerto Rico website extolled the pleasures of bicycling on recently completed trails around that city. One post-hurricane-Maria clip of the initial stirrings of movement in Puerto Rico showed a few bicycles pedaling the still-watery streets among the cars, trucks, and earthmoving machines. 

Bicycles are an efficient means of transportation, especially in relatively flat terrain. Per an Exploratorium website: “In fact cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel–including walking! The one billion bicycles in the world are a testament to its effectiveness.” (see https://www.exploratorium.edu/cycling/humanpower1.html)   

Unfortunately, persuading the world’s more affluent citizens to give up our cars and use bicycles exclusively is probably not practical. Yet in the Texas city of Houston, Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed over a million cars. Houston has been one of the nation’s most car-dependent cities, with nearly 95% of households possessing at least one car. We may not be able to coax ourselves out of our car habits entirely and use bikes as our primary means of transportation, but we can at least make cycling more attractive with bike-share programs, good trails and signage, incentives to bike rather than take the car on shorter trips.

As severe weather events impact more and more of our land area, as densely populated urban centers house higher and higher proportions of humanity, many cities are establishing resilience strategies, often with coordinators that reach across traditional departmental boundaries to integrate efforts. Cycling can be a worthwhile part of such strategies. Before the next big storm hits, let’s start cycling toward resilience.

I Am (Aging)…

I Am…

(This short set of 10 lines was a response to a prompt in a poetry journal a few months after I first became a grandmother. As parts of the Caribbean and the U.S. Southeast continue the slow, hard work of cleaning up after back-to-back hurricanes, maybe remembering past challenges met and present strengths in play can help boost spirits, however slightly…)

I am a grandmother,
I am an idealist,
I am a cancer survivor,
I am a realist.
I am peace loving;
I am a dreamer.
I am an activist;
I am a schemer.
I am aging and learning to thrive–
I am alive.

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses

little girls in frilly dresses, Qingdao, China

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses    —by Jinny Batterson

Last fall, one of our favorite former students in China emailed us exciting news—she was about to get married.  A few weeks later, our former student, “Mona,”  sent a second message with an attachment: a picture of her and her new husband in their wedding clothes.  Mona looked fetching, much dressier than the Mona I was used to—she posed, seated on a high stool, in an elegant flower-print dress with a brimmed hat to match. Her husband, decked out in a casual summer suit, looked over her shoulder.

For much of June this year, I had a chance to travel in mainland China and to reconnect with some former students and colleagues. Especially wonderful was a chance to visit Mona, whose new husband had been a high school classmate I didn’t yet know. They’d chosen each other after a long, sometimes long-distance courtship. I got to spend a couple of days with them. While I was visiting, Mona explained the logistics of arranging her wedding pictures, an increasingly common part of Chinese wedding preparations:

Few people actually buy clothes for their wedding pictures or have pictures taken on the wedding day itself, she explained. Rather, they rent dressy attire from specialized businesses and pick out a place and time to have professional still pictures taken, sometimes adding a brief video. They usually choose a historic or natural beauty spot, on a weekend day when both partners are off work. Because Mona is short for a woman of her generation in China, preparations were somewhat complicated. One weekend, she and her groom-to-be visited a rental agency and picked out clothes they liked in close to the proper size. The following weekend, they went back to the agency to pick up the clothes, which had been altered slightly for better fit.  On still a third weekend, she and her fiancé dressed in their rented finery and met a hired wedding photographer at the agreed upon site and time. Scheduling was tight and did not make allowances for weather. The day Mona’s pictures were taken, it poured down rain. The search for a “perfect shot” took most of a very long day and left both photographer and subjects tired and bedraggled. It took a fourth week to get the rental clothes dried, cleaned, and returned to the rental agency.   

Not long after my visit with Mona and her new spouse, I ventured out on my own to parts of central and northern China where I’d never visited before. In the northern seaside town of Qingdao, I came across a cobblestone plaza more filled than usual with elaborately dressed Chinese.  Primed by Mona’s descriptions of her wedding picture adventures, I realized that what I was viewing were a whole series of wedding photo shoots. June is a prime wedding month in China, just as in the U.S.  I counted eighteen different couples having their wedding pictures taken. The weather was windy and blustery—gowns and photo accessories were hard to keep steady. A dozen of the brides were wearing western-style dresses in white, while others had flowing formals in red, considered a lucky color in China. For one set of pictures, an entire wedding party was assembled, including five or six young girls in frilly white dresses. 

Over the course of this China visit, I noticed more and more young girls dressed in frills and bows, and not always in wedding groups. I’d see them on public busses, on trains and subways, in public parks. All were with at least one parent or grandparent. Often, a parkland family group would be taking selfies, the grandparents somewhat subdued in both manner and dress, the dads fairly casual, the moms dressier, anchored with the latest shoe fashions, the daughters often in white or pastel lacy dresses not much less formal than bridal finery. I crossed my fingers that the attention these girls were getting was a sign that the traditional stigma of having a daughter in China was lessening. None of the girls I saw looked neglected or abused. Many were far from docile. Most seemed valued family members, confident without being arrogant.

A few times, I saw girls and young women in less frilly outfits—on one park walk, the mom and dad in front of me strolled along at a normal pace, while their two daughters in trainers, shorts and tank tops raced ahead running sprints. At another public square, I noticed a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt with an English-language slogan: “Women are the Future,” it proclaimed.

My re-entry into the U.S. was through our 49th state, Alaska, where few women are shrinking violets. I saw the kennels run by the family of Susan Butcher, who’d earlier won the  long-distance Iditerod sled dog race four times.  I got to meet her elder daughter, now actively involved in training new generations of sled dogs for new challenges. Perhaps China’s daughters, and America’s, will one day soon be ready to take their places in a rapidly changing world that needs and welcomes their skills.   

Summer!

Summer!      —by Jinny Batterson

Our calendar and our weather sometimes seem out of sync these days. Spring-like days occur during what is officially labeled “winter.” Winter resurges sometimes during officially calendared “spring.” Inklings of summer can pop up at almost any time of year.  Regardless, to me there seems something slightly magical about the official start to summer—the summer solstice, which this year falls in the northern hemisphere on Wednesday, June 21. Where I now live in central North Carolina, the sunrise-to-sunset interval today is over 14 1/2 hours, with an additional several hours of pre-sunrise and post-sunset reflected light. 

When I was a child, summer included my longest vacation from school. School summer vacation overlapped with part of solar-calendar-designated summer, the period between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox around September 21.  Childhood summers were mostly carefree times then. They were times for going barefoot, toughening the soles of my feet so that after a few weeks I could show off for my friends by walking across all but the hottest, roughest surfaces without flinching. I could catch fireflies in jars and marvel at the way they blinked on and off. I found hideouts in the deepest glades of nearby woods and held picnics—sometimes with fake food and imaginary friends, at other times with filched cookies and Kool-aid plus real friends. Once, when I was invited to a friend’s country house for a sleepover, we took off our shoes and socks and spent part of an afternoon wading in a cool shallow stream, stirring up the bottom mud, then standing very still until the water cleared and small fish started nibbling at our toes. 

On hot, sultry August days, I could stretch out on a straw rug in front of a circulating floor fan in my grandmother’s slightly dimmed, cool living room and lose myself in a good book. At dusk, our family would gather on the front stoop, waiting for the ice cream truck to come down our street. I’d rush to be the first to reach the Good Humor man, holding out my dime for a creamsicle. Of course, there were challenges, too—I was very slow learning most outdoor skills, from riding a bicycle to swimming without panic in deeper water. In those days before chemical sunscreens, my fair skin would blister and peel if left exposed, so on beach excursions I was faced with the unpleasant choice of either covering up from head to foot or getting a painful sunburn. However, summer’s discomforts were vastly outweighed by the glories of its time-bending freedoms. 

Later, when as an adult I had a full-time job and was helping raise our children, summer vacations were never long enough. We’d still somehow manage to escape to our rustic cabin in the woods beside a Vermont lake for at least a couple of weeks. The cabin had running water, gravity fed from a tank up the hill. It had several wall-mounted kerosene lamps, a gas refrigerator and gas stove with an oven, but no phone and no electricity. If we timed our arrival right, we’d catch the height of wild blueberry season. Even us summer people knew of favorite, out-of-the-way spots where the bushes grew thick and the berries grew sweet. On other warm afternoons, I’d venture out onto the lake in an inflatable dinghy while the rest of the crew swam. One morning,  a wizened neighbor took me fishing. He helped me bait hooks, then gutted enough of our sunfish catch to make a good lunch. I don’t think we bothered with a clock at the cabin—times were fluid, punctuated by meals, excursions, and darkness.

Changes in technology and changes in society have greatly diminished the freedom I used to associate with summer. Lengthy stretches of free time are rare, either for our over-scheduled children, for working-age adults with little or no paid vacation, or even for many retirees who’ve succumbed to the blandishments of over-scheduled, over-priced organized tours and activities. Have we traded up to a supposedly richer existence, only to be impoverished by never having or taking time to laze, to just hang out, to enjoy our natural surroundings, to dream? 

I’m among a lucky few who who have the option to indulge in unscheduled time fairly often and who recognize its importance. As I post this, I’m partway through this year’s loosely timed adventures. If you do not have the same opportunities, please try to figure out a way to create a time window for yourself, however short, when no tasks or obligations intrude.  Take a short walk on an area greenway or trail; breathe a few deep, cleansing breaths of fresh air. Summer can become a magical time again, if we let it.        

Of Pegs and Holes, of Circles, Squares and Other Shapes

Of Pegs and Holes, of Circles, Squares and Other Shapes     —by Jinny Batterson

Geometry has never been my strong suit.  Shapes don’t register with me as intensely as words or colors or numbers or images. Formulas for calculating areas and proofs of geometric theorems quickly fade from my memory as soon as I’m no longer required to regurgitate them on tests. Still, I do notice squares and circles, which tend to dominate our man-made and natural landscapes, respectively. 

Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by expressions about “square pegs in round holes.”  A real-life square/round anomaly from the U.S. space program was recreated in the film “Apollo 13.”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2YZnTL596Q)  A potentially lethal problem developed with the space module’s air filtration system, and ground-based engineers had to quickly come up with a way to retrofit it by linking a square peg and a round hole. Though I lack the technical skills of the NASA engineers who helped bring Apollo 13 safely back to earth, my spacial imagination sometimes plays through various scenarios of adapting pegs and/or holes so there are ways to get the two together.

Squares fit into a more general category of “polygon,”  “a plane figure with at least three straight sides and angles, and typically five or more.”  So my rarely-satisfied-with-either-or-solutions brain starts adding more and more sides to an initial square, trying to imagine whether a very large number of sides can approximate a circle. As long as there are discrete angles, a requirement for a polygon, the fit is not perfect, but it comes closer and closer. 

My most vivid real-life experience of varying shapes came during a glorious summer of working at Expo 67, a world’s fair held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada from late April through late October of 1967. (A 50th anniversary retrospective of the fair and impressions of people who visited it in our youth will be held in Montreal this summer.) Although some exhibition halls were based on four-sided structures, others had many different shapes, among them the nearly spherical geodesic dome that housed the U.S. pavilion. It was designed by architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller, with a surface of interlocking triangles, hundreds of them. Fuller discovered that if a nearly spherical structure was created from triangles, it would have unparalleled strength. It could also “do more with less.” Such a sphere encloses the largest volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, thus saving on materials and cost. Nearly 300,000 geodesic structures have been built worldwide, in widely varying locations and climates.

Nature rarely builds in squares. The only example that comes readily to mind is salt crystals, which usually require a microscope to validate their squareness. Certain rare rushes also seem to be endowed with square stems, but most of what we observe in the natural world tends to roundness.  While noodling around for roundness examples, I did an online search for “Why are tree trunks round?” (originally posed by the parent of a 4-year-old) and found this naturalist’s response:

“Living things adapt to the environment around them, or at least they do if they wish to go on being living things.

Trees tend to spend a lot of time outside and so they adapt to their surroundings.

A round or tubular shape allows them to resist the force of the wind better than the flat surface of a square or rectangle would.

Not only does its round shape help resist the wind, but it also is a very strong shape that helps support a lot of branches.

And it’s a matter of protection. With the exception of beavers and maybe woodpeckers or some bugs, it’s hard for most animals to get a good bite on a round shape. There aren’t any corners to get a start on.”  (www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/claythompson/…trees-round/82917948/)

So please, take an occasional break from your squarish computer or smart-phone screen and instead take a look at your surroundings, maybe even venture outside—it can help make you a better rounded human. 

Sensitive Segments

Sensitive Segments    —by Jinny Batterson

A long time ago, before I became totally technically obsolete, I worked for a number of years in what was then called data processing—now more often labeled “information technology.”  The media and the structure of the data I worked with changed over time. First there were punched card files, later storage on computer tapes, then multi-plattered disk drives, and, still later, all sorts of increasingly dense mass storage devices.  At first, each separate computer application had its own files, so there was a tremendous amount of duplication among the various files, with a high probability for errors and mismatches. Later, someone figured out that it would be possible to create a data hierarchy, with a top level “executive” or “parent” piece that controlled access to all the others. This reduced duplication and mismatch difficulties, but meant that to access any piece of data required understanding a rigid data structure, with its different levels and dependencies. 

During the final decade of my data processing work, I was introduced to what were then called “relational databases.” As the expense of computer hardware continued to decline and the speed of data retrieval continued to increase, any data hierarchy that might be lurking in the background was masked. Given a properly constituted database, it became possible for programmers to compose relatively simple inquiries into multiple data fields, no matter how they were positioned in the overall data structure. To me, this way of viewing data was much more intuitive than trying to remember whether “segment A” was a parent segment to “segment B,” or whether both were same-level children of “segment C” in some artificially constructed hierarchy. The catch, in the somewhat hierarchical organizations where I worked, was that some data was deemed off-limits or unnecessary for some members of the agency or firm. For example, the Personnel Department might need to access personal information that was considered either too sensitive or irrelevant for the Accounting Department or the Education Department, and vice versa. 

So some smart computer software guru introduced the concept of “sensitive segments” for data base access.  All the data was stored somewhere, but if you were in the Personnel Department, you could only retrieve data from those segments to which you were given access. If you were in Accounting or Education, you would be blind to those segments whose data was reserved exclusively for Personnel. They did not relate to your job description. From your perspective, they did not exist. 

In the glut of our current information environment, it may seem as though the concept of “sensitive segments” is obsolete. In theory, any of us can access most of the data stored online anywhere in the world via the “world wide web.” However, precisely because there is so much information available in electronic form, it becomes totally impossible for any single person or group to retrieve it all, let alone make any sort of sense of it. Therefore, the Googles and other search engines of our age have devised ingenious algorithms to bring us just those “sensitive segments” they believe will most interest and/or please us. Our search-engine-mediated levels of sensitivity have only increased.

Amid the cries of horror at the polarization and dysfunction of our political and social systems, relatively few point to this sensitization as a partial cause. Few stop to remember that any topical query will bring back the “most popular” web pages on that topic first. For example, if I do a Google search on the word “bias,” it brings back about 207 million results, one screenful at a time, with several dictionary definitions as the leading entries. Such a ranking system helps to make sense of lots of relatively simple topics, yet it also opens a way for more and more extreme distortions of the more complex aspects of reality. Unless I type in a specific web address, I are going to be shown just the information deemed by the search engine software as a “sensitive segment” first.

Each of us reaches adulthood having certain segment sensitivities, based on our genetic make-up, our upbringing, and our exposure to various life events.  Some of us, for example, are drawn to emphasize the role of individual initiative in fostering success; others are primed to stress the role of luck. Some feel entitled to a large share of the world’s material goods; others remark on patterns of systemic discrimination and oppression that deprive many of even a small share of such goods.

It is very difficult, a whole life’s work and then some, to unlearn layers of bias and discrimination we learned early in life. It’s crucial that we minimize the distortions fomented by our increasing dependence on Internet-mediated “sensitive segments.” We need the balance of maintaining and strengthening interactions with real people with real lives whose opinions and experiences may be quite different from our own.     

Book Review: The Crane Dance by William R. Finger

Book Review: The Crane Dance: Taking Flight in Midlife, by William R. Finger

(JourneyCake Spirit: Raleigh, NC, 2016)   

The Crane Dance opens like a travel narrative, with only a few hints of the book’s main themes. The major portion of the text is bookended by sketches from the author’s two travels in India: the first a year-long assignment as a young Peace Corps volunteer in 1969-1970, the second a brief add-on to a 2003 business trip to revisit his former Peace Corps host family—a Moslem widow, her now-grown sons, plus her non-Moslem best friend. In between come thirty-plus years of Bill’s learning to be an adult, of coping with and eventually coming to embrace the particular temperament he has been endowed with, of gaining some peace about the places and times he’s lived through.

Bill Finger came of age at the height of U.S. involvement in Vietnam’s civil war. After his Peace Corps assignment, he requested and received conscientious objector status to avoid military service. Although the exemption was consistent with his evolving religious and ethical beliefs, it left a lingering sense of guilt at being spared the fate of other young men scarred or killed after being drafted into the military. Another source of guilt was having spent many of his early years as a white child in 1950’s Jackson, Mississippi, with its predominantly racist culture.

About the time of his 40th birthday, Bill begins to attend a men’s support group with other fathers of young children. The group becomes a lifeline when, a year later, he suddenly loses his job. Bill and his wife had promised each other to be hands-on, egalitarian parents, and adapted their work schedules over time so that both could be actively involved in nurturing their two children. This meant, among other things, that both accepted lower incomes in exchange for flexible schedules, so that the loss of either’s income would pose economic challenges. 

For the next dozen years or so, Bill cobbles together assignments and jobs to help support the family financially, while also working with men’s groups, with therapists, with anti-depressant medications, with church groups, and with meditation to first examine and later to cope with patterns of recurrent, low-grade depression. Bill has known vaguely since childhood that the uncle he is named after, an intellectually brilliant engineer, was institutionalized with severe depression for much of his adult life. As Bill journeys through less crippling depressive intervals, he learns that his mother suffered a severe bout of postpartum depression after the birth of her youngest child. Perhaps, he surmises, his condition has a partial genetic component.

Bill also experiments with dance therapy. At a celebration when he has progressed a good bit in understanding and coping with his depressive episodes, he and his family host a community initiation performance put on by eight men who’ve spent a semester together exploring movement as a form of artistic expression. Bill’s part in the ceremony includes the crane dance that gives the book its title. He moves his long, skinny arms—so useful in dunking a basketball or lobbing a tennis shot, but often awkward otherwise—as if in flight, celebrating his survival. He’s like the whooping crane, whose numbers plummeted to near-extinction, but then rebounded. “The crane survived,” Bill intones, “and so did I.” 

The book is well written. Parts of it are compelling. However, I found the lengthy descriptions of Bill’s various efforts toward acknowledging and gradually reframing his depressive tendencies, well, depressing. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more rewarding for me to read a “standard” life journey book—hero starts out, hero encounters challenge, hero finds mentor, hero overcomes challenge, hero is celebrated by his peers—end of story. But perhaps Bill’s story is truer to reality. In our instant-everything culture, we may need reminders that not all problems have quick or evident solutions and that many of our efforts will not fully succeed. 

I came to know Bill after the period he describes in this mostly midlife memoir. What I know of his later life has not been without trauma and challenge. However, his earlier struggles seem to have imparted a hardiness and resilience I can sometimes envy. I’d recommend The Crane Dance to anyone at or past midlife, especially those who struggle with depression or live with someone who does. My only caveat—you may want to skim over an intermediate chapter or two. 

Eighth Decade Beginning Inventory

Eighth Decade Beginning Inventory    —by Jinny Batterson

Eyes:  sometimes rheumy, not quite as sharp or quick to focus any more; still capable of seeing beauty around me.

Teeth: ditto about sharpness, not as firmly rooted as before; still capable of chewing the fat.

Ears:   prone to sunburn, hearing less acute; especially deaf to husband’s complaints or criticisms.

Nose: runnier, more often stuffy; still inquisitive. 

Gait:  slower, plodding, even, on uphills; still fond of exploring.

Lungs:  clear and easy most of the time; more sensitive to smoke, pollen, other stressors than before.

Heart:  ditto.

Sleep: easy to start, occasionally wakeful and restless toward morning, more memory of dreams; seems more natural to take naps.

Soul:  more aware of happy times, more grateful; still needs work toward being inclusive.

World: still full of controversy and conflict, still a little dangerous, sometimes tragic; still also full of adventures and joys waiting to happen.

Didace’s Garden

Didace’s Garden   —by Jinny Batterson

It’s a magical time of year here in central North Carolina. The trees have leaves of that vibrant green that’s unique to early spring, before they gradually darken and fade in the heat and dust of later seasons. Shrubs and flowers bloom in profusion, both in cultivated spaces and in parks and woodlands where they’ve either originated or escaped. Recently I spent a couple of hours “tidying up” parts of a traveling friend’s back yard. Mostly, I wanted an excuse to revel in the colors and blooms of the nearly solid wall of azaleas along one side of her property.   

As I raked and pruned, I remembered a different garden, a different season, a different part of the world. For a couple of years in the 1980’s, I had a temporary assignment in the small central African country of Burundi. Most weekdays, I worked in a rural development office in the country’s capital city of Bujumbura, participating in a project to strengthen and diversify a network of consumer/producer cooperatives throughout the country. Burundi then had a few business people and high government officials with great material wealth, a local and expatriate community of civil servants and shop owners who lived modestly, and over 90% of its populace who ground out a bare living as subsistence farmers. It is somewhat ironic that this Peace-Corps-like assignment was the only time in my life when I had human household help. Modern appliances were few; electricity was expensive and intermittent; having an employee to tend the yard was a godsend. My duplex neighbor and I shared a gardener/night watchman, Didace.

Any lasting impact I had in the country was more likely a result of my interactions with Didace than of any tasks I accomplished at the office. Though he had little formal education, Didace was proud of his skills as a small-hold farmer. While he scoffed at my feeble attempts to grow temperate-climate vegetables in the tropics, he faithfully dug small plots for me in September and January, at the beginnings of each of the country’s two rainy seasons. Later, he tracked down supports for the pea and bean vines that straggled upward. The income he got from maintaining foreigners’ gardens supplemented what he could grow on his farm to eat or sell, helping provide a better life for his family.

Before the first Christmas season of my assignment (which occurred during a lull between the shorter and longer of the two rainy seasons), I mentioned to Didace that I would be traveling to Greece to see family over the holiday. Was there anything I could bring back for him and his family as a small gift?  He thought for a while, then explained that what he’d really enjoy were some pictures of his family and his small farm. Didace had noticed the snapshots of family and travels that I kept on the room divider in our open-plan bungalow. Would I be willing to visit his home, take pictures with my (traditional) camera, then get the film developed on my trip and bring back several of the best photos?

We made plans for me to borrow a project vehicle one weekend in early December and to drive, then walk, to his family’s home in the hills above town. The paved road quickly became dirt, which gradually got more potholed and rutted. Didace met me at the intersection of the road and a person-wide path that led further into the hills. Once we arrived at his house, he pointed with pride to the tin roof he’d recently installed with a loan/advance on his monthly wages. He introduced me to his wife and two young sons, and then showed me around the small plots where they grew beans, corn, and cassava, a root vegetable whose tubers provided most of the carbohydrates of the Burundian diet. At one edge of the house was a small banana grove. A few chickens scratched in the dirt.

Then, in a small fenced area, I saw a flower garden. If memory serves, it had a mixture of gladiolas, dahlias, and other showy flowers I didn’t recognize. They were beautiful. I asked why his family chose to grow flowers on some of their limited acreage. Partly, he said, so they could sell the best blooms at the Bujumbura central market for additional income. But mainly, just because they were pretty. I wish I had made and kept copies of the pictures of Didace and his garden. Beauty knows no boundaries.