Category Archives: holidays

How Not to Commemorate 9/11

How Not to Commemorate 9/11  —by Jinny Batterson

Yesterday there were many formal commemorations of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in many parts of the U.S.  Anna Allison, who perished on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center, was someone I’d met only a few days before at a small-scale conference. After she returned home from the conference, Anna deferred for a day a flight to California to visit a client so that she could spend a little more time with her husband and step-daughter in Massachusetts. Tracing back through some of the memorials to her, I came across the following appreciation from her widower: 

“Every day was a new opportunity for her. Because there were new opportunities, there was always hope of doing something good. That’s the way she lived her life.”

I hope that Anna would be pleased with some of the service projects that have sprung up around the country as part of 9/11 commemorations, but I have my doubts that she’d have been happy at a couple of yesterday’s events.

First, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a change in asylum rules proposed by the Trump administration to prevent asylum seekers from entering the U.S. through other countries without initially seeking asylum in those countries. Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg dissented, with Sotomayor writing a rebuke to both the court and the nation:

“Once again the Executive Branch has issued a rule that seeks to upend longstanding practices regarding refugees who seek shelter from persecution. Although this Nation has long kept its doors open to refugees — and although the stakes for asylum seekers could not be higher — the Government implemented its rule without first providing the public notice and inviting the public input generally required by law.” 

Closer to my current home, the North Carolina House of Representatives used the absence of the Governor and many of its Democratic members at 9/11 commemorations to pass an override of a previously vetoed state budget along partisan lines, with just over half of House members present. Opponents of the override cried foul, saying they had been told no votes would be taken on this national day of commemoration and mourning. 

I continue to mourn the loss of fine people like Anna. Even more, I mourn the loss of the sense that as a nation, we are capable of living up to our ideals.  We can and must do better. 

Caramel-colored Children and Labor Day

Caramel-colored Children and Labor Day    —by Jinny Batterson

In a conversation with a good friend whose tendency to wax cynical has been reinforced by some of our recent political and media trends, I heard her lament: “Maybe we’ll finally stop dissing or shooting each other when all of us are caramel-colored.”

I admit to a good bit of prejudice not supported by reality, so I did a little research on interethnic marriages and relationships, which have become increasingly common in the U.S. over the past several generations. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing interracial marriage (in the 1967 case Loving vs. Virginia), the proportion of reported interracial/interethnic marriages in the U.S. has risen dramatically. As of 2017, over one in six new marriages in the U.S. were registered between spouses of different “racial” backgrounds, while about 10% of all married couples were “mixed race.” Statistical evidence for non-marriage relationships is harder to come by, though my anecdotal experiences tell me that these are also becoming more diverse.

The 2000 census marked the first time that Americans were given an option to choose multiple racial identities, not just one. By the 2010 census, people who reported multiple races had risen substantially: 9 million census respondents chose to check two or more racial groups, a 32 percent increase from 2000. (Those who reported a single race rose by 9.2 percent over the same interval.)

My extended family has at least one multi-ethnic marriage and two young adults who could choose to check more than one “race” on a census form. I’ve not delved very far into how my nephews choose to identify themselves and how this has impacted their lives; my hope is that any prejudices against them are waning as “mixed race” children become more and more common.

Intellectually I know that the whole notion of “race” is more cultural than biological. Differences in skin pigmentation bear little relationship to variations in DNA and to other supposedly ingrained characteristics. Still, like many, I’ve been socialized to view a person’s skin color as somehow indicative of their other characteristics. Not until I’d lived next to an elegant “black” neighbor for a decade did she explain to me that she did not much like to dance and had little sense of rhythm. 

Labor Day is a day set aside to honor the contributions of laborers to the overall good of American society. Those of us who are “white” (and generally privileged to do most of our labor with heads rather than hands or backs) are beginning, reluctantly, awkwardly, to enter into conversations about the labor of “non-whites” forced or coerced into doing much of the work of building this country and society. Too often we continue to dishonor their and our heritage through sentimentalizing versions of U.S. history and society that leave out or minimize the injustices and cruelty that helped and help “make America great.” 

There is much work still to be done. Let’s remember, this Labor Day, to keep laboring toward a more equitable America where all labor is valued, whatever the skin color of the laborer.

Coming (Back) from Away

Coming (Back) from Away     —by Jinny Batterson

This year I spent much of the summer outside the U.S., on an extended trip to parts of England with my long-term husband Jim, a long-ago English literature student.  Our roughly six-week trip included several weeks of leisurely walks through parts of the English countryside, with a two-week interval mid-trip in a rented apartment in London.  When we arrived in London by train from the much smaller city of Bath, this financial and cultural global capital seemed noisy, diverse, crowded, especially at first. To exacerbate the situation, partway through our first week we experienced several days of the heat wave that had been broiling much of Europe. Gradually, we adapted. We learned to relish London’s many green spaces, to marvel at the tidal Thames just outside our apartment windows. We also went to shows, lots of shows.

Jim had scoured the internet to find a balance of venues and genres. We saw a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V in a replica of the Globe Theater. We attended a stand-up show at a small comedy club in the basement of a gay bar. We were part of an evening audience for Agatha Christie’s vintage whodunit, “The Mousetrap,” now in its 68th year. Our tickets to a reissued drama about midlife in New York City, “The Starry Messenger,” got upgraded so we were closer to the stage than our budget usually allowed. Its main character was never explicitly shown: the 1930’s building housing the Hayden Planetarium, about to be demolished in the late 1990’s when the play was set.

The performance I enjoyed most was a musical, “Come from Away,” also with a huge off-the-stage presence. Its dozen actors represented some of the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, Canada and some of the temporary airline guests “come from ‘away’,” from off this isolated island at the eastern edge of Canada. For several days, Ganderites sheltered crew and passengers from “away” in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Immediately after the attacks, U.S. air space was closed. Planes coming from Europe were diverted to Gander’s airport and sat on the tarmac there until onward flights to U.S. cities again became possible. Gander’s leaders and townspeople opened their public spaces and their homes to the refugees. They provided shelter, food, medicine, clothes, toilet facilities, and human caring, no one sure how long the visitors’ stays might last. Especially in our current political and media environment, I was grateful to be reminded of the goodness that can coexist with hatred and terror. That the performance was a musical added to my enjoyment. After a little while tuning my ear to the varying accents of British actors playing Newfies, U.S. pilots and passengers from different regions, plus passengers from many different countries, I gradually decoded the major characters’ speech patterns. From then on, the generally upbeat but not Pollyannaish plot and songs held my attention and my heart.       

Returned to the U.S., once over the worst of my post-trip jet lag, I researched the origins and performance history of “Come from Away.”  Created by married Canadian authors Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical had its genesis at a 2011 reunion gathering of some of the nearly 7,000 passengers who’d been temporarily stranded in Gander and the roughly 9,000 residents who’d provided exceptional hospitality under exceptionally trying circumstances. The show was first performed regionally in parts of Canada and the U.S. It  opened on Broadway in 2017, in London in 2019, and currently has a global touring company. (For a brief interview with authors and director, check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m5P-Ej5svA). I even found a recent clip from Trevor Noah’s “Daily Show”— a “street theater” performance by “Come from Away”’s Broadway cast during a mid-July 2019 partial NYC electric blackout.

Coming “back home” after England, I found it at first a little strange. Why did I not have to strain to understand people’s accents? At the same time, I was glad to have had the chance to spend time physically “away.” Not everyone has the luxury of overseas tourism, I realize. Yet whatever our physical circumstances, each morning, each one of us alive comes back on waking from the “away” of our sleeping selves. May we give thanks, then take maximum advantage of such grace-given returns.           

The Double Seventh Festival

The Double Seventh Festival (Qixi)    —by Jinny Batterson

The “Double Seventh” festival is celebrated in China on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month each year. Because the lunar calendar varies compared to the solar calendar used in most Western countries, the occurrence of the Double Seventh festival can come anywhere between late July and late August. In 2019, the festival falls on August 7. It has been called the Chinese “Valentine’s Day,” and is based on a famous legendary Chinese love tale:

Niu Lang (the Cowherd) was an orphan with a gift for nursing cattle back to health. After a god coaxed him into caring for cows in the heavens, Niu fell in love with the fairy Zhi Nu (the Weaver Girl) and the two started a family. However, the queen of heaven became jealous and caused a great river (the Milky Way) to come between them. The two were heartbroken. Their copious tears caused the queen to relent just a little—one day each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, the two were temporarily reunited.

The star Vega is often cited as representing the Weaver Girl, and the star Altair represents the Cowherd. On double seventh evening, Chinese in areas with clear skies can gaze up to see Vega and Altair shining in the Milky Way, with the star Deneb forming a symbolic bridge between them.

Similar celebrations are held throughout other countries in Asia, with variations of the legend told in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. 

In more urban areas of China, the Double Seventh festival has become less important, overshadowed by Valentine’s Day in February. In the countryside, celebrations are more likely to continue to exist, with young women exhibiting their skills in sewing and embroidery, and lovers exchanging gifts of flowers, chocolate, or decorative clothing.    

Layered Reality

Layered Reality   —by Jinny Batterson

Sometimes, despite fairly consistent efforts to broaden my circle of friends and acquaintances, it seems as if I’m stuck in an ever-shrinking bubble, quarantined in my own little “liberal-urban-retiree” silo. Recently I had a chance to spend a week with our out-of-town grandchildren, exploring a couple of stunning U.S. national parks via outdoor hikes. My guess is that our son and daughter-in-law had carefully coached the kids to humor grandma and grandpa by not overusing their “screens.” We watched a fair number of breakfast-time morning cartoons, but mostly we wandered outside, free from earbuds, television, or other screens. Cell phone coverage was minimal or nonexistent.

Much of our political and cultural life these days, including mine when not hiking with the grandkids, gets mediated by screens. Screen life can often seem tasteless, colorless, instantaneous, disconnected. I realize I’m getting old and slow, but I doubt this is the only cause for our disconnectedness.

I remember a story my rural sister told me. Typically apolitical, Sal had gotten sufficiently exercised in our recent hyper-charged society that she decided to become more politically active. In 2018, she campaigned for a candidate for U.S. congress in the Maryland district where she lives. She and I live in mirrored political entities—both North Carolina, where I live, and Maryland, where Sal resides, are “poster child states” for extreme political gerrymandering. I live in one of a few districts carved out to the benefit of NC’s minority party (in this case, the Democrats). Sal lives in the one district in Maryland that has been allocated to its minority party (in this case, the Republicans). Though our NC polling sites during early voting and on election day fairly consistently have longish lines, the precinct where Sal stood with her candidate’s literature wasn’t busy. Dribbles of voters came by the area where campaigners were allowed, leaving lots of down time. My sister is nothing if not gregarious, so before long she was talking with the two campaigners for the majority party candidate. Carefully sidestepping the merits of their respective candidates, Sal probed for possible common ground. Pretty soon, the three of them were discussing the uncertainty of sale prices for soybeans; the availability of rental drones for quicker, more thorough analysis of field conditions; the best area bulls for improving dairy herds; the impact of changes in agricultural regulations on small-scale farmers. Although there were certainly political opinions where the three of them likely disagreed, they found a good many areas where their interests overlapped and they could be both civil and informative. Their reality was layered with interspersed agreement and disagreement.

Last year about this time, I was in an area of rural France where human habitation goes back hundreds of thousands of years. I got a tour of an archeological site with over a dozen layers of excavation, ranging from about 40,000 to about 15,000 years ago. Now inactive, the site had been carefully dug during a human generation or so, some layers yielding little in the way of artifacts or information, others rich with both. I believe we need to remember that our social and political realities are rarely either/or, much more often layered with both conflict and agreement. Likewise, we are both independent and interdependent.  Please let’s take a bit more effort toward excavating beyond the tweets and the sound bites—our neighbors may be more layered than we know.

Uncle John

Uncle John   –by Jinny Batterson

Uncle John in military uniform, 1941

It’s been so long ago now that I barely remember
The annual childhood visits to Arlington’s cemetery,
To put flowers on the gravesite where your family
Eventually had you re-interred after you’d fallen
In Germany near the end of World War II.

Once I’d grown older, I asked for pictures of
What you’d looked like in life–you were blond, like
The stern dad whose name is included in yours.
You’d volunteered early for the military, convinced
That the Third Reich posed a grave danger to
Global civilization, though equally so, you thought,
Did rampant nationalism and materialism. In one of the
Pamphlets that your middle sister had printed in your
Honor and memory, you opined, “Would you die for
Your bathtub?” Perhaps somewhat germane, as I sit
In air-conditioned comfort while soldiers in distant deserts
Sweat out yet another year of armed conflict.

You were an inveterate scribbler, like this niece
You never met in life. An eldest son, one of just two
To survive to adulthood, you died in Europe a month
Shy of your thirty-fourth birthday, at about the same
Time your younger brother was among those not killed
When a kamikaze pilot damaged the aircraft carrier
Where he served in the Pacific. Dad came home and
Rarely talked about his service. He sired four children of the
Family’s next generation. In life, the two of you had argued
Passionately about politics, about human nature, but had
Worked and traveled together before war sent you to opposite
Ends of the earth. Dad had the longer physical life, and
He passed along some of your ideals along with the family genes.

You loved the outdoors, spent time on the family farm,
Went camping with friends–an heirloom snapshot shows you
Holding a coffee pot, with an improvised clothes line
Tied to a tent in the background. It’s somewhat fitting
That what physically remains of you lies among many others
On a grassy incline, partially shaded by trees, in a large area
Of “section 12” between Grant and Eisenhower Drives.

This year I won’t make it physically to your gravesite.
My worsening eyesight cannot totally decipher the
Inscription on the virtual image of your headstone
That I now can pull up thanks to a website and the
Volunteers who maintain it. Our country and others
Still engage far too often in “shooting wars,” both foreign
And domestic. Our technology now allows us to engage also
In vicious foreign and domestic cyber wars, equally dangerous.
Please rest well, Uncle John. Know that your survivors
Are doing our best to continue your legacy of service.

The Shapes of our Scars

The Shapes of Our Scars  —by Jinny Batterson

This Mother’s Day brought cards and good wishes from the next generations. Although I once in a while miss the annual homemade breakfasts I used to get years ago, having grown-up children is much less hectic. I’m very glad I’ve had chances to be a biological mom. I’m grateful that the generations after mine are coming into their own, establishing their own patterns of family and civic life.

Mother’s Day observances for me can bring comparisons with other mammalian mothers. Someone has recently started a “dog moms’ day” (celebrating the women who care for their pet dogs) on the Saturday just before (human) Mother’s Day. Lots of internet images these days feature women mothering their pet dogs, or cute dog mothers with their pups, or cat moms with their kittens. What intrigues me most, though, are humpback whale moms. 

Many members of my age cohort were introduced to the songs of humpback whales during the 1970’s, when popular singer Judy Collins produced a duet of human and whale songs based partly on humpback whale recordings captured at sea. The whale songs were haunting. The songs of the humpbacks added impetus to a movement to curtail whale hunting internationally. Humpback populations have since rebounded, though still only at about a third of their estimated 1940 levels.

Marine biologists are learning more about the migration patterns and behavior of all whale species, including humpbacks, one of the larger whale species. Mature humpbacks are about the size of a school bus, weighing 30-40 tons.  Humpbacks migrate huge distances between feeding and breeding grounds each year. Scientists are not sure all the reasons that the whales vocalize—sometimes to find a mate, perhaps to share news, perhaps at times just for fun.  Humpback whale mothers can produce a calf every 2-3 years, and nurse their new calves for up to a year. It takes about a decade for whale calves to reach adult size. A normal humpback lifespan is about 50 years, with ocean pollution, boat collisions, and fishing gear entanglements having replaced whale hunting as main sources of premature death. 

Identifying individual humpbacks can involve studying the patterns of light and dark colorations on the underside of their tail fin, or “fluke.”  Sometimes these patterns are interrupted by scars, which can also help with identification. Recent studies have indicated that many of the scars on mature whales are the result of accidents or attacks when they were calves—often during their first migration.

In a way, such news is reassuring to this fellow mammal. Regardless of my best attempts, sometimes I may have exposed my human children to harm. Sometimes that harm may even have come from me, passed down from the generations that preceded me. I’m grateful that whatever the scars I carry or have inflicted, both I and my children have survived to adulthood. With wisdom, I may be able to use the shape of my individual scars to help heal myself and others.  With wisdom (and perhaps with song), we may be able to heal ourselves and other species from the scars we have inflicted on the planet.   

For more about humpbacks, check the internet—one fairly good introduction has been posted by National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/h/humpback-whale/     

Labor

Labor     —by Jinny Batterson

Not to belabor the point,
But for many of us, labor has gotten
Pretty thoroughly detached from bodily work. 

The fruits of our labors these days
May often involve spreadsheets rather
Than hand-washed sheets spread in the sun
To dry, or fruitful virtual deals rather
Than fruit freshly picked from actual trees.

Fuels laid down in prior geological
Time substitute for much manual labor these days.
Gas, oil, coal, electricity can help make our lives
Comfortable, if not especially productive or fulfilling.
We yearn for connection, but rarely find it.

We may experience nature at a distance,
Or not at all. Sweat, strain, exertion, groans
Happen at the fitness center, washed away
When we shower and change into “street clothes.” 

Physical labor, when done well, has its own inherent dignity.
Might this day, established in the nineteenth century
To honor laborers, remind us in the twenty-first
To take a break from the gym? Instead,
To go outside, to find a patch of earth, however small,
To heft a trowel, hoe, or shovel, then to burrow
Into a bit of the foundational soil that has for
Eons fed both our bodies and our souls. 

Different Angels from Montgomery

Different Angels from Montgomery   —by Jinny Batterson

Growing up, I wasn’t a huge country music fan. However, like a lot of folks, I developed an infatuation with the John Prine song “Angel from Montgomery” and its signature refrain: “Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.” Who/what is the angel? There’s some dispute.  One of John’s friends insists it was an angel atop the Montgomery Ward building in Chicago, near where John was raised. Another theory is that “angel that flies” refers to a prison pardon communicated from the office of Alabama’s governor at Montgomery. Such pardons for prisoners were/are much hoped for but seldom granted, especially for those on death row. To my knowledge, Prine himself hasn’t identified the angel.

The song stayed in the back of my mind as I planned a “southern swing” in late winter. I had friends in Atlanta, relatives in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Montgomery, where I’d never before visited, was not that far out of the way.

This initial capital of the Confederacy and nexus of civil rights activism a century later had some museums I wanted to see. Near my downtown Montgomery hotel was a small museum to early country music star Hank Williams, who first rose to fame in Montgomery in the late 1930’s. Though I read the historical marker to his memory and looked at the window displays, this was not one of the museums I came for. Rather, I wanted to spend time learning more about Montgomery’s role during the civil rights era—about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the bus boycott that helped usher in a decade of civil rights activism.

In a downtown Montgomery branch of Troy University, a Rosa Parks exhibit reconstructed the events surrounding Ms. Parks’ 1955 arrest and the ensuing bus boycott, complete with a vintage bus. Having a chance to see the actual venue that had produced her and then the year-long boycott brought home her fortitude and resolve, along with the solidarity and resolve of Montgomery’s African-American community.

I’d made advance reservations for another pair of museums and memorials, recently opened by the Equal Justice Initiative. The Legacy Museum and its companion, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the Lynching Memorial) show the enduring legacy of racial terror that continues to haunt our nation. The Legacy Museum, a block from Hank Williams’ shrine, documents the horrors of the slavery and Jim Crow eras plus some brutal variants that continue to this day.  One of the museum’s most graphic exhibits is a set of large jars of soil collected from sites of terror lynchings that occurred from the 1870’s up through 1950, peaking in the 1890’s and early 1900’s.

On a six acre site overlooking Montgomery’s downtown, a companion memorial contains two sets of over 800 steel columns, one for each county in the United States where documented racial terror lynchings took place. One set of columns is shielded by a roof. Viewers of the sloping site are led from an initial area where the columns are at ground level toward a section where they hang suspended, like many of the lynching victims they represent.  

Hanging columns at National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama

Words or photos cannot convey the full impact of experiencing a walk among them. The county where I now live in North Carolina had one lynching memorialized; the county in Maryland where I was raised had two. In all, over 4,000 racial terror lynchings have been documented and verified in 20 states.

A second set of columns lies flat on the ground. Rust-colored, it reminded me of the corrosive myths many of us have told ourselves and each other for years, helping perpetuate race-based fears and hatred, going all the way back to the myth of the “happy darky.” There’s the myth of the predatory black man, with its corresponding myth of helpless womanhood. Especially pernicious and pervasive is the myth of white superiority, abetted by the myth of entirely benign police presence aimed solely at preserving “law and order.”

. The duplicate columns are designed to be brought home to the counties where lynchings occurred, as a way to help acknowledge past injustices and then help heal our enduring racial divides. The columns are way too heavy to fly, but these angels represented in Montgomery need to go home. It’s way past time.

Duplicate columns, Montgomery's memorial

duplicate columns lying outside at Montgomery memorial

By now, I’ve become an old woman. Not unlike the wife in Prine’s song, I’m named after one of my grandmothers. I may be old, but I can continue to bear witness. Again paraphrasing Prine’s lyrics—to believe in (and work toward) reconciliation is a good way to go.    

Taxing Our Patience

Taxing our Patience   —by Jinny Batterson

(A piece of doggerel for this year’s “tax day.” With slight adjustments in meter, it can be sung to the tune of the final verse of  “When You’re Lying Awake (with a Dreadful Headache)” from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera “Iolanthe.”)

When in the course, the R’s chose a dark horse
And the airwaves with hate speech kept humming,
It seemed plausible to me that from sea to sea,
Pretty soon there’d be bad vibes a’coming.

His campaign harkened back to America’s past,
With a hint of nostalgic bravado–
His portly physique and his combover sleek
Could put one in mind of the Mikado.

In debates loud he slashed, his opponents he bashed,
With occasional other-aimed insults.
He could stalk and could preen, dominate every scene
Upstage everyone else to get results.

As November drew near, he switched into high gear,
Jetting to campaign in the heartland:
He would bring back lost jobs, toss out swampland nabobs,
Salve the pride of those unfairly canned.

On Election night pundits discussed the close run: “It
May take ’til morning on this one,”
Then rust belt results tilted red by some thousands–
Electors would make sure the mogul had won. 

Well who needs briefing books, we’ll throw out the old crooks,
We’ll install our first staff, most of them will not last,
If “you’re fired” does not work, I can make you resign,
It’s reality TV almost all of the time, and if you get indicted
Defense is your dime, I’ve got meetings with Kim,
You can sink or can swim, it’s the same to me
Long as I’m center of global attention.
Immigrants cause all mess, we must care for them less.

Four-year terms can be long, ditto, ditto this song—
Please God, let them soon both be over!