Category Archives: holidays

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! 

How Have We Come So Far on Earth? (50th)

Were we ever that young?

How Have We Come So Far on Earth?  (50th)   —by Jinny Batterson

(Many years ago, we started the custom of a poem on our wedding anniversary. The poetry hasn’t improved all that much; the marriage has somehow endured…)

In retrospect, so much can seem inevitable:
The ungainly bag of holly and pine boughs,
The welcoming seat at the front of the bus,
The
glib blond guy with the Paul Bunyan
Glasses frames. The letter to “Jennifer”
Wit
h the correct postal address at my dorm.

The college-based courtship. That magic
Summer in Montreal. The horses across
The fence our first dew-drenched dawn
Alon
g the road east toward the Gaspé.
Our newlyweds’ apartment near Hopkins,
The night we watched the progress
Of 
pedestrians first dodging, then
Accepting the thunderstorm’s drenching.

Trying to make the Nearings’ rural dream our
Own, though rank novices in needed skills.
Buying
a lakeside cabin at a divorce-sale
Price. Uprooting to northern Virginia and
A
hellish teaching term. Stitching ourselves
Back together while riding Fred the red pickup
Along
the mighty Mississippi to New Orleans.

Two children born of love and post-Watergate
Fervor. 
 The friendly Richmond neighbors who
Salved the silly white liberals aiming to
Dismantle racism double-handedly.
The
Servas adventures, both as hosts and
As travelers. The travails of drug-infested inner
City
living. The trophy house and garden.
The long-term live-ins: Chinese, then Japanese.

The mid-life lump, the reconfiguring of later priorities:
Less career focus, more service, more travel.
China
tourism, China teaching, China by plane, by bus,
By rail, by camel, by motorcycle, by bamboo raft.
Wondering
at scenery, food, sometimes strange
Similarities with America. The sooner-than-expected
Grandchild. Relocating to
North Carolina just
In time for its next slide into regressive politics.
The
Wenchuan earthquake, beginnings of recovery.

Reaching our milestone three score and ten with
Most body parts still functional, grieving for those who’ve
Already
departed the planet. Scant chance we’ll have
Another fifty years, but determination to treasure the
Highs
and lows of the together times that remain.

Happy anniversary to the accidental/inevitable
Love of my life.   Love, Jinny

This Year’s February 14

This Year’s February 14     —by Jinny Batterson

This morning the sun rose here earlier than the day before;
The poinsettias a neighbor gave me to nursemaid
After the Christmas holidays droop a bit, but still
Lavish red and pink accents on our late-winter
Condo. My husband sneaks a colorful set of earrings
Onto my place at the breakfast table. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Only this year we add a differently sanguine tradition:
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Remembrance Day.
Last year, this morning in Florida started out routine,
Even joyous, until lives were shattered by gunfire.
Does it matter whether the gunman was mentally ill?
Does it matter that he had access to a military-style weapon,
Designed and sold for no other purpose than killing humans?

At 10:17 a.m., schools and workplaces will observe a moment
Of silence, remembering slain students Alyssa, Martin, Nicholas,
Jaime, Luke, Cara, Gina, Joaquin, Alaina, Meadow,
Helena, Alex, Carmen and Peter. We’ll ponder whether
Any of us have the bravery or protective instincts of staff
Members Chris, Aaron, or Scott. We’ll continue to mourn, to
Question what we can do to reduce the chances that
Future holidays will also come to hold dual meanings.
Thoughts, prayers, silent vigils help. They’re not enough.

Additional steps are required. To honor their memories,  go a little
Beyond: Send a pointed Valentine message to your legislator.
Follow up with emails, maybe even visits. Make a donation.
Register and vote. Talk with those of different views.
Find the unique, universal core deep within you,
Then share it. Some holidays exist for us to reclaim.

 

      

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street   —by Jinny Batterson   

corner of Walnut and Walker            

The first time I remember participating in an autumn ritual of gathering black walnuts (juglans nigra), I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My dad, a small-scale residential building contractor in Maryland’s burgeoning suburbs, would notice, as he traveled from one building site to another, where there were black walnut trees growing along the sides of still-rural roads. He’d make mental notes of the most likely candidates for a bountiful fall harvest. Then, one crisp Sunday afternoon in October or early November, he’d load Mom, me, and my younger brothers and sister, along with some buckets or bushel baskets, into the family station wagon. He’d drive us all to that year’s designated walnut gathering site.

We kids learned to be careful picking up the nuts. If the outer hulls were the least bit bruised, they could ooze a sticky sap onto our hands, turning them walnut brown. Once we’d either filled our buckets/baskets or run out of easily accessible nuts, we’d all pile back into the station wagon and return home.

The next challenge was to find a good way to remove the nuts’ outer hulls, then to keep the partially processed nuts secure from local squirrels until it was time to finish the nut cracking process. Dad tried various mesh screens, or running over the walnuts with the car, or storing the unhulled nuts loose in a shed in the back yard while their outer hulls dried, then husking them like corn. No solution was perfect, but by Christmas we typically had enough partially hulled nuts left to shell out a supply of nutmeats for flavoring cakes and Christmas cookies. Black walnuts’ inner shells are hard. It took a lot of effort with a hammer and a nut pick to get the meats from their shells. We nearly always missed a few choice morsels that were just too difficult to pry out. The flavor of black walnuts in carrot cake or oatmeal-raisin cookies, though, was worth the extra work.        

For a lot of years after I left Maryland, I lived where black walnut trees were scarce. Then one autumn as I was wandering in a suburban park near the central North Carolina condo where I now live, I spied a black walnut tree with nuts on the ground around it. A brief errand back to the condo to get a bucket and some gloves equipped me for suburban foraging. That year’s crop was bountiful enough for both me and the squirrels. My after-harvest squirrel protection measures worked well. The resulting carrot cake was wonderful. For several years afterward, I found enough nuts in this park along aptly named Walnut Street to share with the squirrels and still have my carrot cake.   

Walnut trees, it turns out, do not thrive in deep shade. They need a certain amount of sunlight to achieve their maximum potential, hence their prevalence along roadway edges, in open areas, or in abandoned fields. They are a tree that “does not play well with others”—they produce a substance, jugione, that inhibits the growth of other trees and shrubs in their vicinity. However, their nuts and their wood are both valuable. They also appear on several top-ten lists of temperate region trees which absorb the most CO2, helping mitigate climate change. 

“tree protection area” near major new construction project

This year, the suburban park tree of my past harvests is inaccessible—stretching skyward behind fencing near a new library/parking complex. Though it stands in a “tree protection zone,” I’m not sure if it will survive the construction disruption. Habitat loss is not the only challenge for black walnuts. In the U.S. west, a fungal pest has been decimating walnut groves there. The disease has recently been discovered in Tennessee. If it spreads widely, walnuts may eventually suffer the sorts of die-offs that previously wiped out elms and chestnuts.

We need our trees, especially our mature specimens. Please send thoughts, prayers, and good tree karma to North Carolina’s remaining black walnut trees. While you’re at it, please pay attention to other instances of environmental neglect with potentially awful consequences for us proud, stubborn humans. A recent short clip, “Gone in a Generation”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/gone-in-a-generation/?utm_term=.7d70420d76b8, tells the story rather starkly.    

MLK, Jr. Reweaving the Dreams

MLK, Jr.: Reweaving the Dreams   —by Jinny Batterson

While he was alive, I knew little about him.
The mainstream press in Baltimore barely mentioned
This Negro preacher who’d helped marshal a yearlong bus
Boycott and in the mid-1960’s won a Nobel Peace Prize.
There were rumors he might be a Communist.

I was in high school, with other concerns—
Who could I get to take me to the prom?
Would my SAT scores help me get into a good college?
Would my parents take away my driving privileges
After an accident that I at least partially caused?

By the time I got to college, his star was waning,
Eclipsed by rising black militancy and a war in Southeast Asia
That dragged on and on. His tactics and pronouncements were
Less influential, less obviously successful in northern cities than in
Earlier Southern-based campaigns. Non-violence and preaching peace
Didn’t appear to work against big-city political machines and war contractors.

At first it seemed his dreams had come unraveled when his life ended.
As riots broke out in many American cities following his assassination,
I sat distracted in a secluded dating parlor on a small college campus,
My boyfriend’s bent-kneed proposal and diamond ring a pale foreground
To a muted television backdrop of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,
Two bookends of my youth, engulfed in flames, sirens, and riot police. 

By the time his birthday was declared a national holiday
In November, 1983, I was attempting to learn and implement
Parts of his dream in rural central Africa. My efforts met with
Little success in a country whose few rich and many poor lived in vastly
Different worlds, with a minuscule middle partly made up of expatriates
Like me. I had lots of time to read the contents of a USAID library.

Martin Luther King, Jr., I learned, was a middle child, born just before
The Great Depression. His family lived in a relatively prosperous black enclave
In segregated Atlanta. During his early studies, he drifted, but partway through
High school he was inspired toward the ministry. He went north and completed
An impressive formal education, earning a doctorate by age twenty-five.

The parts we now recite in school start in Montgomery, Alabama,
Where he was nominated, as a young, little-known preacher, to give voice to the
Aspirations of people who had for too long been shunted to the back of the bus.
After the successful conclusion of the bus boycott, sixty civil rights leaders met
In Atlanta, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and elected
MLK as its first president.  Then came sit-ins, Freedom Summer, Albany,
Birmingham, Selma, Chicago, a Poor People’s Campaign, a sniper’s bullet.

Those of us who call ourselves progressives winced at subsequent American
Foreign and domestic policy, wrote letters, attended rallies and marches,
Wondered what else we might do to stop, or at least reduce, the madness.
For a while, we thought we had found an answer in another young,
Eloquent brown-skinned man. Twice we elected him national president,
Allowing complacency to creep into our ongoing efforts.

Our current national administration is more nightmare than dream.
It wants us to forget that our deepest dreams are inclusive rather
Than exclusionary, spiritual as well as material. MLK knew this.
He tried to tell us, over and over again, but we rarely listened.

We know MLK had flaws—infidelity, sometimes neglecting his family,
Carrying too much of the movement’s burden by himself.
We do not need another plaster saint, of whatever skin hue,
But Coretta was right to insist that we honor MLK with a holiday.
Though not free from sin or error, he was also a prophet
Who recalled us to our best selves. May we remember
His efforts as we redouble ours, reweaving stronger dreams.

Pandas Playing Mahjongg–Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival

Pandas Playing Mahjongg, Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival 

                                                        —by Jinny Batterson

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Panda Land 2019

For the past several years, a traveling exhibit of LED-lit silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter. Last year on the night I attended the festival, the air was bitingly cold. Crowds were sparse. This year, on a clear weekend evening a good bit warmer than typical for early January, I ate an early supper, then put on a hoodie, drove to the festival site, parked in a free adjacent lot, and walked to the box office to get a ticket. I arrived a little after the festival’s 6 p.m. opening—once the sky was dark enough to provide a good backdrop for the thousands of lanterns and fanciful lit shapes.

I’d assumed that by arriving early, I’d “beat the crowds” and minimize my wait time to purchase tickets (cheaper at the gate than by internet) and then gain entry to the exhibit space. The wait wasn’t too long—maybe twenty minutes in all–but it turned out I’d arrived at the height of that evening’s viewing hours for multi-generational families. Rather than come later in the evening, they were enjoying the spectacle before youngsters’ bedtimes, at the same time taking advantage of reduced or free entry for young children.

The star of the show, a huge brightly lit dragon, again stretched along the shallows of Symphony Lake for a couple hundred feet. It was even larger and more intricate than last year’s dragon.  A few of the other exhibits were similar to what I’d seen previously, but arranged differently and with different emphasis.  New features had been added, too, including a set of large lantern “drums” near the entrance, with a real drum that kids could pound on to make the lights glow brighter.

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Drums

My favorite set of lanterns was “panda land.” I’d previously spent time in China in the region where pandas are native. This exhibit featured stylized panda figures in human poses—riding a bicycle or, my absolute top pick, playing the Chinese tiled game of mahjongg, a sort of cross between dominoes and the card game spades.  Periodically, performers on the festival stage did acrobatics or Chinese dances—I watched briefly, then went back to the pandas. This year’s lantern festival is nearly over. The weather for remaining evenings is predicted to be less pleasant than the evening I went.

If you live locally, I’d encourage you to go if you can. Too often these days our airwaves are full of insults, ricocheting threats, and fear mongering. Against this background, an outdoor stroll alongside others speaking many languages, all of us watching the whimsical uses we can make of our technologies when we’re not busy fussing with each other, is, dare I say it, priceless.