Category Archives: holidays

What Difference Can a Letter Make?

What Difference Can a Letter Make?   —by Jinny Batterson

Of late the future of the United States Postal Service seems in doubt. Congressional hearings are being held. The recently appointed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, has defended his changes in service levels as attempts to streamline the post office’s business practices. Others have questioned whether the changes he is implementing undermine vital services, including a crucial pandemic-era method for casting ballots—by mail. 

I’m a fan of the postal service. It’s provided a lifeline, especially during periods when I’ve resided outside the United States. Then, the postal service provided the surest way for me to interact with family and friends back home. Internet access might be spotty or absent, phone lines might go down in earthquakes or other natural disasters, but the mail nearly always got through. 

Today, August 26, many in the U.S. celebrate Women’s Equality Day. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution for women’s suffrage:  “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Many of us know the story of the letter that made a difference in the suffrage fight—a six-page handwritten missive from a widowed mother to her son, Harry T. Burn, a young 24 year-old Republican lawmaker from McMinn County, Tennessee. After hearing a scathing denunciation of the amendment by one of her son’s legislative mentors, Febb Burn was moved to include a gentle rebuttal in her letter, nestled among descriptions of doings on the family farm. She closed with a suggestion, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt…(a longtime suffragist).” When Burn broke a previous tie in the Tennessee legislature to support suffrage, others at first thought he’d made a mistake. He had not. He’d opted for conscience and the advice of his mother over political expedience in his heavily conservative district.  (For a lengthier account, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/local/history/tennessee-19-amendment-letter-harry-burn-mother-febb/ ).  

My family has a different letter that made a difference. It was written by an Army corporal serving in Germany. My uncle, John Voris, loved learning. He described in his letter that he’d sent a big batch of books home, and hoped for a new shipment soon. “About the books, … I try to keep one or two about me all the time. You see that four years in the army represents a big hole in your life. I try to keep studying and reading so that I can salvage some of these years, in part at least.”  

Much of the November, 1944 letter describes his prior campaigns and the bronze star he’d just been awarded. What made and makes the letter special is that it was received by his family at about the same time as the telegram informing them that he had been killed in action. While the letter couldn’t bring John back, it helped assuage their grief. His younger sister, a printer, had the letter typeset and distributed. It has been passed down from generation to generation. Along with a few pictures, it’s all we have to remind us of an idealistic young soldier who didn’t live to see the next peacetime. 

The Febb Burn letter is now displayed in a museum. Most family mementoes have a less illustrious place, but they are still special. Our emails, tweets and instagram posts are not likely to replace them. So take the time to write a postal letter to someone you care about. Maybe write to the Postmaster General, too. Letters make a difference.    

 

Of Loaves, Fishes, and Miracles

Of Loaves, Fishes, and Miracles   —by Jinny Batterson

One of the earliest Bible stories ever read to me was an account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I remember thinking how special it was that thousands of people could be fed from only a few loaves of bread and a few fish. My knowledge of Biblical lore is not as deep as I’d like, but I’ve recently revisited Biblical loaves and fishes stories, of which there are at least six (Matthew 14, Matthew 15, Mark 6, Mark 8, Luke 9, John 6). Online sources explain that the miracle of loaves and fishes is one of few mentioned in all four Gospels. In all the stories’ variations, Jesus interacts with his disciples, with a spiritual force to whom he gives thanks, and with large crowds. Literalist interpretations stress how many baskets of leftovers were collected at the end of the meal. More metaphorical explanations of the miracles concentrate on the possibility that it was not Jesus’ direct intervention that multiplied the available food, but his unleashing the generosity of members of the crowds who had enough food to share. 

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about loaves and fishes stories, as the global covid-19 pandemic spotlights and sometimes worsens inequities in our access to material resources.  I’ve been reading the words of former Congressman John Lewis, a champion of principled action and societal equity. I’ve been marveling at the life of this man who was so often told that there was not enough, that HE was not enough, but persevered to blaze a path of non-violent protest and public service. I’ve been thinking, too, about a woman colleague from a couple of generations ago and the lessons she imparted to her daughter.

I’ll call my former colleague Susan. Susan was a single mother. She’d struggled hard to provide a decent living for herself and her daughter. Susan never talked about the child’s father. I never asked. They lived in a very conservative neighborhood. Despite disapproving looks and hurtful comments, Susan insisted on taking her daughter to church and to Sunday school. Over time, Susan saved up enough to provide a summer trip to Disney World, every young princess’s dream. Planning the trip was almost as fun as the actual event. Once Susan returned to work, she was full of stories about the marvelous rides, about the great service at the hotel where they’d stayed, about how thrilled her daughter had been to meet Mickey Mouse.  

“Do you have any special memory that stands out?” I asked her one day. 

After a pause, she told me, “Actually, it wasn’t a ride itself, but something that happened while we were waiting to get into one of the most popular attractions. It was a hot day, and I decided to spend a little extra money to get my daughter a popsicle—nothing fancy, just one of those water ice contraptions with two sticks. When I next looked at my daughter, she’d broken the popsicle in half and given a piece to the little boy in front of us. I didn’t want to make a scene, so I didn’t say anything. The line moved fast, and we all enjoyed the ride. That night at the hotel, I asked my daughter why she’d done what she did—didn’t she like the popsicle?” 

“It’s not that,” she told me, “but I could see that the little boy was just as hot as I was. I remembered my Bible school lesson—‘Jesus wants us to share.’” 

Amen!    

Taking a Media Sabbath

Taking a Media Sabbath  —by Jinny Batterson

In Judeo-Christian traditions, we are taught to “honor the Sabbath, and keep it holy.” According to the strictest interpretations, that means on every seventh day abstaining from all sorts of work and some of our usual daily activities, taking time instead to focus on spiritual growth. The term is related to a longer interval, a “sabbatical,” a seventh year widely observed in academic settings when professors and researchers take an extended break from their standard duties to pursue alternate studies and to recharge.   

The use of a day of prayer is not limited to Christian or Jewish traditions, though, and can have political overtones. In British-controlled India in 1919, a set of repressive new laws were passed giving the British government authority to arrest anyone suspected of “terrorist activity” and to detain them for up to two years without trial. Other laws simultaneously broadened police powers to conduct searches without warrants and curbed press freedoms. When the most egregious law, commonly called the Rowlatt Act, went into effect, opposition figure Mohandas Gandhi proposed that the entire country observe a hartal, a day of fasting, prayer, and abstention from physical labor, in protest. The response was overwhelming–on April 6, 1919, millions of Indians simply did not go to work, and for twenty-four hours (agonizing hours for the British) India simply ground to a halt. (https://www.sparknotes.com/biography/gandhi/section7/)  After continuing protests, the Rowlatt Act was repealed in 1922. 

As internet use has spread globally, much of the world’s population spends at least some time online. Back in 2017, scientists writing in a journal of neuropsychiatry estimated that perhaps 2% of the adult population suffered from “internet addiction,” compulsively spending more and more online time. (abstract from 10.4172/Neuropsychiatry.1000171,  2017) An article from 2019 (https://www.psycom.net/iadcriteria.html) gave a range of estimated internet addiction from below 1% to nearly 38% of adults. Since the onset of the current global covid-19 pandemic, internet use has spiked further as more of us turn to online communications while confined close to home and admonished to maintain social distancing. 

The internet can be a source of valuable new information, publicizing trends and histories that many of us had been unaware of. For example, as someone with no known enslaved ancestors, I’d been less aware of “Juneteenth” than those whose ancestry was less fortunate. (The holiday initially celebrated the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when formerly enslaved people in Galveston, Texas first got official word that they were now free.) Juneteenth is becoming more widely celebrated throughout the United States, and was recently cited as a reason for the postponement of a political rally by our current President. 

However, the internet can also be used to spread spurious information and to inflame tensions. It provides instantaneous feedback as “algorithms” select more and more of the content they believe we might want to be exposed to. We become “products” who are encouraged to buy more and more goods and services. These days, I know that my use and misuse of the internet can drift close to addictive behavior as I search for clues on how to stay well, relatively safe and somewhat sane in this confusing and highly politicized time. 

So I will use this Sunday, July 19, as my individual “Julyteenth,” my media sabbath, a brief freedom from the endless click bait of internet content providers. I’ll disengage as much as possible from internet browsing or virtual meetings. I’ll also try to cut back on television, streaming services, and the like. I’ll try to focus instead on spiritual growth, with perhaps some limited, more direct, but safe offline methods of reconnecting with neighbors and loved ones. I’ll adapt some advice of poet and writer Maya Angelou, who counseled a generation ago:  

“Every person needs to take one day away.  A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future.  …  Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.  Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” (Maya Angelou, from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, 1993) 

If my media sabbath refreshes me, I may make it at least a monthly ritual, if not yet every seventh day. My hope is that the spiritual nourishment of a sabbath will better equip me to confront the complex issues of my community, nation, and world. Good Sabbath, friends.    

Democracy Is Not an “Ism”

Democracy Is Not an “Ism”  —by Jinny Batterson

We’re living in a strange season, locally, nationally, globally. First came a novel corona virus to which few humans have immunity. It has spread fear, illness, disruption, and death to nearly every country. So far efforts to contain, cure, or prevent it have met with uneven success. In many parts of the United States of America, the outbreak seems to be worsening.

As people everywhere began to cope with the pandemic, it quickly became evident that self-isolation and social distancing were the best ways to slow the virus’s human spread. In the U.S., those at the “bottom” of society were least likely to be able to self-isolate. Most lived in crowded conditions. Those who were employed mostly worked in low-wage service jobs necessary to society’s functioning—“essential workers,” they were suddenly called, as if a dignified label could make up for generations of poor pay and poor living conditions. Others chose not to isolate or distance because these practices seemed an impingement on their liberty.  

To add to the trauma of the pandemic, we’ve recently been confronted with other examples of our inequitable society. Video footage went viral of a white police officer in Minneapolis squeezing the life out of a prone, handcuffed black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes while other officers looked on and bystanders yelled for him to stop. It became less and less possible to talk about “resisting arrest” or “a few bad apples.” The systemic corruption of America’s criminal justice system was broadcast worldwide for all to see. 

And we have an American election coming up, one that’s poised to be expensive, divisive, and prone to distortions at many levels. Is it any wonder many of us are disturbed?  Whatever happened to the “shining city on a hill,” a beacon of hope for oppressed people everywhere? Whatever happened to our democracy?  

I’m not exactly sure, but I think part of the difficulty is that we’ve confused democracy with ideology. Many of us self-identify at least partly using a series of “isms”: conservatism, liberalism, progressivism, socialism, libertarianism, federalism, communitarianism, environmentalism. Every week seems to bring a new label.  

Democracy is not supposed to be easy. It is always a work in progress. Some guidelines our U.S. founders laid out have generally held, but there were huge blind spots in our original framework of laws. Some of those blind spots have persisted, as the George Floyds and “essential workers” of our country have recently reminded us. 

Democracy requires that each human has some say in decisions that impact him/her/them, regardless of circumstances. In small settings, that say may be direct. As groups get larger and more diverse, it becomes necessary to have “representative democracy,” where officials are elected to represent a neighborhood, town, city, county, state, or nation and to champion the interests of their constituents. 

Democracy requires that each human be willing to listen to perspectives that differ from his/her/their own, to acknowledge the humanity of others, to be humble about the limits to any individual’s knowledge or judgment. Whatever “isms” we subscribe to, we all breathe air, we all drink water, we all eat food. While we’ve been busy discounting and insulting each other, our air and water are getting dirtier, parts of our food supply are at risk, and more of us are becoming sickened by the corona virus. 

A few of our political leaders have stressed our connections across our divisions: “We’re all in this together. We’ll get through this together.”  Too many of us may not get through at all unless we start acting as if we believe that, meeting each other beyond our “isms.”  Happy In(ter)dependence Day!  

 

Noticing a Tailwind

Noticing a Tailwind   —by Jinny Batterson

As discussions and protests continue around issues of police brutality, systemic racism, and possible ways forward, I’m reminded of a long-ago vacation when I viscerally experienced the difference between the presence and the absence of a tailwind.

Back when my husband and I were younger and fitter than we are now, we sometimes planned bicycling vacations. An especially memorable one was a two-week jaunt during the 1990’s to some then-isolated regions of eastern Canada. We were able to reserve ten days’ lodgings in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island, with a side trip to an even smaller, more remote set of islands further east—disjointed parts of the province of Quebec in the midst of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Our initial setting out point was Charlottetown, PEI’s capital and largest city. In those days, Charlottetown was a frequent honeymoon destination for Japanese brides who’d read the popular novel series about Anne of Green Gables, an orphaned girl raised in an idyllic rural setting by her potato farmer aunt and uncle. The novels had been part of their high schools’ curricula in Japan. We wandered the town for a little while, getting oriented and marveling at the trilingual street signs (English, French, and Japanese). In the afternoon, we got a taxi to the site of a bike rental agency where we’d reserved two appropriately sized rental bikes. 

We then pedaled off to our first night’s lodging, a rental cabin at a campground not far from town. For most succeeding nights, our overnight accommodations would be at small inns and B&B’s about 30 miles apart, an easy day’s ride in the generally flat or gently rolling terrain.

Once we reached an eastern edge of PEI, we took a ferry from the smallish town of Souris to the even less populous Magdalens, or îles de la Madeleine.  We’d reserved four nights’ lodging on these islands—three on the island with the ferry terminus and one on an island further north.

Our first night we stayed near the ferry terminal in a family home with multiple generations in attendance. After a plentiful breakfast the following morning, we pedaled off northward, cruising easily along, spotting herons and other shore birds as we went. We traveled along a sandy causeway little more than the roadway wide and reached our destination mid-afternoon. Our northern island host was a dedicated birder. He gave us hints about when and where to get the best views of shore birds. Accommodations were simple but ample. The sunset and star views were unsurpassed. The following morning, after another plentiful breakfast, it was time to return southward. 

Pedaling along the causeway this time felt as if we were trying to propel our bikes through a slick of molasses. On our way northward, we had been totally oblivious to a substantial tailwind. The wind had not shifted overnight, so our return trip was straight into a significant headwind. It was well into evening when we reached our third night’s stay. 

I cannot know what it is like to be a black person in the United States of America in the year 2020. Though I’ve studied some about the traumas of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, though I’ve had friends of color who were willing to share a few of their individual stories with me, being non-white is not part of my lived experience. The one minimal experience I’ve had on a bicycle riding into a headwind may be a small example of what it frequently feels like to be “living while black” in today’s America. 

So I need to ask myself, repeatedly, what additional actions I can take to make that headwind a little less severe.   

 

A Protest Lullaby Project

A Protest Lullaby Project   —by Jinny Batterson

My hope is that many of you can remember a time in your childhood when your mother or a special adult sang you a soothing lullaby.  One of my favorites is “All Through the Night,” originally a Welsh song. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzFqirIGVB4) 

The past couple of months, especially the past couple of weeks, have been unsettling for me. As I write, the annual June anniversary of the use of repressive force in China in 1989 has nearly arrived. Many of us living in the United States of America are witnessing the use of repressive force on our own streets. In the wake of another senseless murder of an unarmed black man, demonstrations have begun and persisted in many American cities.  

At the same time, a global viral pandemic has hit our country hard, uncovering many inequities and rifts that those of us in comfortable circumstances have tried for too long to cover over. Concerns over the spread of the virus have dampened the public activism of many older Americans, those of us most vulnerable to serious illness or death from covid-19.

Many who are wiser than me have counseled prayer. Spending time on our knees is one good way to acknowledge both our pain and our solidarity. Another may be songs, both energetic and uplifting, and, at the close of the day, soothing.

My hope is that younger people in areas under curfew will continue peaceful in-person protests, wearing face coverings and observing as much social distancing as possible. Airing long-festering grievances and concerns, both in public protests and in virtual spaces, is crucial to beginning to address them.  

I suggest that we add to other protest rituals, a few minutes before curfews take effect, a lullaby. Let’s sing to each other, to ourselves, to our President and political leaders of all persuasions. Let’s choose whatever language and idiom most suits. Let’s mouth the words, silently or aloud. If we are not under curfew, let’s practice a lullaby a few minutes before sunset. 

Singing and praying to and for each other will not by themselves solve our problems. Nothing but sustained, concerted actions at many levels will. But a lullaby can offer a brief respite, perhaps open a greater possibility for healing our too-fractured world.   

Hush, my worldmates, peace attend thee, all through the night…

Earth Has Its Day

Earth Has Its Day   —by Jinny Batterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sluggish Livers, Fingers in Dikes, Resurrected Economies

Sluggish Livers, Fingers in Dikes, Resurrected Economies  —by Jinny Batterson

Those of us who’d previously lived comfortably sedate lives as middle class U.S. retirees have had our world shaken by a tiny virus. The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated our news cycles for weeks, causing disruptions in the daily habits of many not directly infected. Whether it’s making a face mask and wearing it on shopping expeditions, compulsively cleaning the bathroom for the fourth or fifth time, praying and worrying about vulnerable loved ones and friends near and far, or playing endless rounds of board games, our previous habits and perspectives have been called into question. A friend with connections in the airline industry recently forwarded a description of a passenger airline system that slowed from a torrent to a trickle practically overnight. Real estate transactions have become more difficult and more uncertain as financial systems try to change their in-person business practices and to adapt to widespread fear. Several personal analogies come to mind.

The one previous time I personally faced serious illness, an Asian friend with extensive training in traditional medicine explained to me that I had a “sluggish liver.” This did not necessarily pertain to a discrete organ, she told me, but a general slowness of circulating energy in my whole body. It’s sometimes seemed to me that our current distribution of wealth and income is a societal “sluggish liver,” one that I don’t pretend to know how to correct, but that does not serve our overall body politic very well. This pandemic has highlighted the differences in vulnerabilities and access to services among those at different places on the income/wealth distribution curve. However, some high-profile cases of the virus have also shown that wealth and privilege do not grant blanket immunity. 

Having a partially Dutch ancestry, I was raised on the story of the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike to forestall a major flood, while friends ran to get adults to engineer a more permanent solution. I’m tremendously grateful to the health workers and first responders who are currently putting their fingers in the dikes of our medical testing and delivery systems. I want to believe that at least some of our political and social leaders are the adults who’ll help create a more permanent solution. Perhaps a better “global pandemic warning” system is a partial remedy, vaguely akin to some improvements in the tsunami warning system that were put in place after a 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused widespread devastation and loss of life. 

In the religious tradition I’m part of, this is Easter weekend, a time of traditional gatherings to celebrate spring and the renewal of life, as embodied in the resurrection of a crucified savior. Other religious traditions have not-dissimilar celebrations: Jewish friends celebrate Passover at this same time of year; the Moslem holy month of Ramadan will start this year in late April. In China, an early April weekend features tomb-sweeping, honoring one’s ancestors. Most celebrations this year have been curtailed, transferred to “virtual,” or postponed or canceled in order to reduce the spread of contagion.

It’s too early to tell what our global society will look like after this pandemic subsides. Studies of previous epidemics and pandemics, whether the “Black Death” that wiped out nearly a third of Europe’s population during periodic outbreaks starting in the fourteenth century, or the 1918 flu estimated to have killed nearly 50 million globally, or smallpox, or polio, can perhaps provide clues. As I look forward to a somewhat muted Easter morning, I pray that the society and economies we come together to resurrect post-covid-19 will be more just, more responsive, more joyful. My best wishes to all for a blessed Easter.  

Year of the Phoenix?

Year of the Phoenix?   —by Jinny Batterson

During the shortest days of the year for the past several years, an exhibit of lighted figures has come to our town—a multi-acre display of LED-illumined silk lanterns produced in the Chinese city of Zigong, in Sichuan province. Zigong’s artisans have long crafted lanterns for Chinese festivals. In recent decades they’ve gained global fame for their beautiful handiwork. Increasing numbers of U.S. cities are using winter-dormant park spaces to mount both static and interactive displays. 

Our town’s display centerpiece is near the shore of a multi-acre lake: until this year a magnificent dragon (shown in a previous post—https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/01/03/chinese-lantern-festival-an-american-version/).  When I attended this year’s event just before (western) New Year, I wondered, as I wandered down a slope decorated with shapes of real and mythical animals, if the dragon had taken its accustomed place. No dragon, not this year. Instead, an equally impressive floating display of a mythical phoenix, complete with pulsing lights going from head to tail.  

The night I saw the display, the weather was fairly mild for late December. Attendees from multiple cultural traditions mingled and oohed and aahed at the depiction of the fabulous bird. A little research about legends of the phoenix show the magic bird as a staple in the mythology of multiple civilizations, including Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese: 

“In Asia the phoenix reigns over all the birds, and is the symbol of the Chinese Empress and feminine grace, as well as the sun and the south. The sighting of the phoenix is a good sign that a wise leader has ascended to the throne and a new era has begun. It was representative of Chinese virtues: goodness, duty, propriety, kindness and reliability. Palaces and temples are guarded by ceramic protective beasts, all led by the phoenix.” ( https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ancient-symbolism-magical-phoenix-002020; accessed 2020/03/27) 

When our town’s lantern display was packed up for return to Zigong in mid-January, it was nearly time for Chinese New Year (or “Spring Festival,” celebrated in 2020 starting on January 25). The upcoming Chinese year would start another cycle of the 12-animal Chinese zodiac, which includes the dragon, along with eleven other real-life animals (in sequence: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig). So far, the phoenix has not become part of the Chinese zodiac, though the mythic bird is often considered the feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon. 

Now that covid-19 has become a global pandemic, I’ve been asked, like more and more people all over the world, to self-isolate at home to reduce the speed of the virus’s spread, allowing health care systems time to adapt by “flattening the curve” of new infections. If I’m a bit bored, it’s a small price to pay for a larger social good. The next generation in our family includes two members of hospital medical staffs, and their safety is a big concern.  

This enforced time at home gives me license to engage in reveries about the mythical bird. Many legends of the phoenix depict it as an extremely long-lived creature who senses approaching death, builds her own funeral pyre, and then dies in fiery majesty. Shortly afterwards, the next generation of phoenix rises from the ashes.  

What might the symbol of the phoenix mean as 2020 begins with a global pandemic—the death of an overly competitive ethos and the dawning of an age of more thorough global cooperation? a rethinking of our interlocking systems of education, health care, corrections, and social welfare? a reining in of our preoccupation with material wealth? renewed reverence for the natural world that supports us all? 

Let’s hope that 2020 will turn out to be a year of the phoenix.   

Phoenix lantern at NC Chinese Lantern Festival

The Bus Seat Rule

The Bus Seat Rule  –by Jinny Batterson

(for Mr. McNeill on St. Patrick’s Day)

My long-ago high school chemistry teacher
Was an irascible Irishman, equally
Passionate for his subject and his students.
Not having chosen chemistry as a career,
I’ve forgotten much of the content he taught,
But I remember one teaching tool:
The bus seat rule.

As you watched a bus fill up with strangers,
He’d explain (or an atom with electrons),
You’d notice that, while any empty seats remained,
Each new passenger would gravitate to one.
Not until the last empty seat was taken
Would people begin to pair up.

Another lengthy telephone conference call.
Much time and attention devoted to
Seemingly trivial matters as other folks
Concerned themselves instead with global pandemics.

We reformers and activists can too often
Follow the bus seat rule–
Each staking out our solo seat
For saving the world.

It could be discouraging, unless we have faith
That more people are boarding the bus
Than are getting off, unless we can also imagine,
Even in trying times, a bus  brimming with
Reform-minded high schoolers,
Returning from the world’s ultimate field trip,
At the exact instant when the mood shifts
From levity to “We Shall Overcome.”