Category Archives: Spiritual musings

III

III     —by Jinny Batterson

A veteran of dramas both global and
intimate, he was sired by a socialist
who alternated families while shepherding
a mid-20th century experiment in cooperative living.
As soon as he could, he escaped to serve time
in the Navy. Afterwards reticent about his military
experiences, he let drop only something vague
about intelligence and early computers.

Out of the service, he worked for a time
as a banker, then shed most
trappings of conventional life and
headed to hippiedom’s heyday:
1960’s San Francisco.
.

He studied acting, acted for years as a catalyst
for companies and organizations wanting to make
better use of technology. Along the way, he jettisoned nearly
all of his name, becoming just III. His only personal
concession to technology: a telephone with a number that
spelled out “TANTRUM” plus a basic answering maching.

I knew him later in life, a graying pony-tailed
“jiggler” at our small annual conference,
noted for his deep-throated laugh, his facilitation skills,
a deep aversion to being photographed.
In multiple conference sessions, he coached us:
“Boundary is everything.”
He honored the boundaries of us non-smokers by
limiting his cigarette consumption to the outdoors.

He allowed just one physical likeness: a basic pen-and-ink
sketch a friend drew, strictly for promotional purposes.
Despite III’s pared-down lifestyle, he became a packrat
of conference clothing, saving all twenty-five garments from
his years of participation. After outliving his father by almost
a generation, he died of a stroke. I mourned,
first from afar, later at a Pacific beachside
service his partner organized, bringing along
hand-me-downs from III’s conference sweatshirt collection.

Our advance crew filled a fire pit on a chill misty afternoon.
Once the fire blazed hot, we wrote or sketched some
of our favorite III memories. Shivering in our sweatshirts,
we let the fire devour the papers, arcing their residue skyward.
We told III stories to the young, lamely imitated III’s signature guffaw.

Not until I returned from the beach
did I notice a small burn mark on this year’s
sweatshirt sleeve–the size and shape of a cigarette ember.

III memento

Losing Our Leaves, Leaving Our Losses

Losing Our Leaves, Leaving Our Losses   —by Jinny Batterson

Not yet the part of autumn with luminous light,
But already the leaves have begun to drop.
Those still on the trees are ragged-edged
From the winds of recent storms.

We, too, begin to droop, weighted
Down by the trillions of gallons of water
And waste churning through our coastal plains
As hog lagoons and ash ponds drain oceanward.

If we’ve not been media hermits, we’ve
Been exposed, too, to a flood of tantrums
And tears from high office seekers, office holders,
Commentators, and accusers alleging past violations.

Whether we sense a booming, blaming paternal voice
Out of Eden, or a quiet niggling of conscience
Before the morning’s ever-breaking news,
We start to see the fig leaves we wear.

A loss of innocence is the hardest loss to bear.
The desire to appear blameless is universal–for
Genders, races, nations, high office aspirants alike.
Yet endure such losses we must, maybe more than once.

By the time trauma has receded, by the time an anguished outcry
Gets voiced, will we excuse ourselves with well-rehearsed denials:
“Overwrought, imagining things, too long ago, never happened,”
Or can we acknowledge the hurt, muster the collective grace
To answer with contrite, action-backed apologies? Will we,
Both injured and injurer, leave our losses, begin to rebuild trust?

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited   —by Jinny Batterson

During my childhood, my most formally religious aunt used to give me books of Bible stories, adapted for children. One of the most difficult stories for me was Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It concerned death, not totally unknown even to small-town American children in the 1950’s, plus a kind of cosmic reckoning:

In a gated estate there lived a rich man, who (revised standard translation, part of Luke’s gospel, chapter 16) “was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”  Outside the rich man’s gate was a poor, diseased man named Lazarus, “who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  Sharing was apparently not part of the rich man’s ethos, so Lazarus languished in distress.

After a time, both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven, “Abraham’s bosom,” a welcome change. The rich man, by contrast, went to Hades, a realm of fire and brimstone, just near enough to heaven so the rich man could see Lazarus there, hanging out with Abraham in comfort. The rich man cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” Nothing doing, Abraham explained. The rich man had had his chance at comfort while alive. Now the chasm between his current locale and Lazarus was deep and impenetrable, allowing for no crossovers.

During the 1990’s, I was briefly exposed to a widening gap in perspectives between rich and not-so-rich. I had a short-term subcontract with a major accounting firm at their downtown office. At the time, I was living in an inner city neighborhood that suffered the side-effects of a worsening epidemic of crack cocaine: robberies, arrests, lengthy prison sentences, even murders. It was a scary time. Occasionally I went out to lunch with my accounting firm colleagues. Once, I asked my supervisor whether the city’s worsening poverty and crime bothered him.

“I don’t have to notice poverty or crime,” he responded. “After work, I ride the elevator down to the guarded basement garage to retrieve my car. Then I drive out the expressway to my home in a gated community in the suburbs. No poor people interact with me at all. It’s not my problem.”  For most of the years since that encounter, I’ve lived in relative comfort, while trying with mixed success to learn and practice the discipline of sharing.

Though some quote an incident near the end of Jesus’ ministry as a justification for ignoring those in poverty, saying, without the surrounding context, “you always have the poor with you,” the vast majority of Jesus’ sayings and actions support the view that caring for “the least of these” is a sacred duty. 

The year 2018 so far has been filled with more than a little fire and brimstone—volcanic eruptions on Hawaii’s big island, huge wildfires in much of the U.S. West. In the part of the country where I live, the major problem has been floods. So far, they have yet to approach Biblical proportions, but the aftermath of Hurricane Florience in eastern North Carolina has been severe enough so that our current equivalent of Noah’s Ark has deployed, in the form of government rescue boats and the “Cajun navy,” a set of volunteers with small boats who previously plied their crafts in last year’s major flooding in Houston, Texas.  Florence drenched already struggling regions with over two feet of rain. Among the hardest hit were the region’s poor. Relieved to have been spared the worst of the storm, I watched media coverage of a flooded housing project where building maintenance had long been ignored or postponed. Videos showed some of the problems: peeling paint, exposed pipes, stained ceilings. Residents complained of asbestos-laced insulation. The electricity had gone out, and no one knew when it might be restored.

Beyond temporary aid, what could be done to help?  Should we as a society put more emphasis on affordable housing, less on high-end real estate? Would rebuilding and/or relocating require higher taxes? Could we somehow craft a renewed ethic of sharing? 

As I struggled to make sense of our society, seemingly rather badly out of kilter, I went out for a walk. The days were getting shorter. It occurred to me that our earth was in the period around an equinox—one of two occasions each year when the sun’s rays hit our tilted planet directly over the equator. Around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, all creatures everywhere on earth experience days and nights of roughly equal length.

Instead of a chasm between wealth and poverty that gets harder and harder to cross, maybe we need something approaching a human “equinox.” Maybe we can head toward a narrower “wealth gap,” with adequate basic provisions for all living beings. Getting to a more equitable distribution and use of earth’s resources will take skill, political will, and good character. It IS possible, though. Nature creates equinoxes twice each year. Can we learn from her before flood, fire and brimstone get worse?  Happy fall, y’all!             

Happy Interdependence Day!

Happy Interdependence Day!    —by Jinny Batterson

For a good many years now, I’ve bracketed an insertion into my July 4 Independence Day greetings to friends in the American expatriate community:

“Happy In(ter)dependence Day!” I extol them.  It has seemed to me increasingly evident that in an era of global communication and commerce, celebrating “independence” needs a counterweight. We have become more and more dependent on one another across all sorts of boundaries. So I was pleased to find that others more widely known than I am have come up with similar themes. Perhaps the most widely publicized is a September 12 holiday proposed in the years just following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.  In 2003, a group met to create a day to celebrate our global interconnectedness, and settled on September 12, the day after the terrorist assault, as a day for an annual celebration. According to Parag Khanna, one of its founders:

     “For the event’s organizers (the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland), Interdependence Day is intended to be crucially different from 4 July. Where Americans alone celebrate the latter, the idea of interdependence unites all peoples across national boundaries in a common human destiny. At the same time, there is an element of deep continuity: for Americans in particular will have to struggle as hard to realize the promise of interdependence as they did for independence.”  (For a fuller explanation, please check out the following link: https://www.paragkhanna.com/home/americas-interdependence-day.) 

     I’ve just returned from a cross-country U.S. trip, benefiting from collaborative practices among airline personnel, colleagues, other passengers, and airport employees to adjust schedules and seating to get as many of us as practical back to our homes on the U.S. Atlantic coast in advance of a strong hurricane. My guess is that our skills at interdependence will soon get a good bit of practice, courtesy of Florence and/or other storms later in the season. My best wishes to all for adequate shelter from the storm—Happy Interdependence Day!     

Entitled, Endowed, Enabled

Entitled, Endowed, Enabled    —by Jinny Batterson

At this year’s Labor Day, I’m likely to be engaged in intense mental labor with friends and former colleagues, trying to make some sense of the somewhat shaky state of civil society in the United States of America in 2018. As the holiday approaches, my sense is that our uneasiness arises partly from confusion about being entitled, endowed, or enabled. Below are some as-yet-unfinished thoughts about how the three might be interrelated:  

A decade or so ago, a leader at an educational institution I value complained that students there had “a sense of entitlement.”  I wasn’t sure what he meant, and I wasn’t in a position to either validate or refuse his claim. Just now I looked up the definition of the phrase, and this is what a search engine produced:

“If someone has a sense of entitlement, that means the person believes he deserves certain privileges — and he’s arrogant about it. The term “culture of entitlement” suggests that many people now have highly unreasonable expectations about what they are entitled to.”  (from www.vocabulary.com)  

         I suppose the term “entitlement” derives from the honorific and/or hereditary titles that certain members of European nobility were given. Over time, such entitlement does not need to have anything to do with the person’s character or accomplishments. It cannot be revoked. 

The most famous phrase about “endowed” comes from one of our founding documents, the U.S. Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  

A more recent application of “endowment” is the endowment effect (also known as divestiture aversion), the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. Someone who has been “endowed” with say, a house, or a job, may feel that this endowment is permanent and react strongly when there is a perceived threat to his/her ownership. Institutions can also be “endowed” materially—we periodically hear figures about the size of Harvard’s endowment, not  often paying attention to the variability of such funds over time. In a different sense, we may talk of Dolly Parton’s “endowment,” likewise a not-entirely-permanent trait.  

What appeals to me more than either of the previous terms is “enabled.” To me, this term infers more active engagement by the person who’s enabled.  Some stories of enablement based on events at Special Olympics competitions and other sporting events give examples of teamwork, in which someone who may fall behind in the traditional sense is enabled by teammates to finish his/her race, enabling all to succeed together. The term is also used for the process of retraining someone who has lost previously available skills due to illness, accident, or other impediment.  

Reverting to endowment, though, I quote from the lead article of the constitution of my adoptive state of North Carolina. Borrowing from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the framers of this post-Civil-War constitution added a fourth endowment: the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.  

  May we all find ways to better balance entitlement, endowment, enablement as we move forward.    

 

  

Dog Days Dreaming

Dog Days Dreaming     —by Jinny Batterson

It’s hot and muggy outside, pretty typical for central North Carolina this time of year. I’m used to calling late July and August “dog days,” figuring that even dogs with any sense would spend this part of the year lolling in the shade (or, if available, in an air-conditioned interior). It’s also a time when summer begins to drag a bit. My recollection of “dog days” during my schooling is that by this part of August, I was bored, “dog tired” of school vacation. Going to the swimming pool, attending a fireman’s carnival, getting a root beer float or a hand-dipped ice cream at our local soda fountain—none of these activities had quite the same allure as earlier in the summer. I was beginning to long for the uptick in social life that went with school’s return. Some of my friends probably felt the same way, but we were reluctant to share our views out loud. Instead, we hewed to a teen party line that summer was all fun and school was a drag. Turns out the term “dog days” has less to do with our pet canines than with the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius, the “dog star,” during a roughly 40-day period in July and August, noted since Greek and Roman times.

Sleep research indicates that most of us dream. Fewer of us remember our dreams on waking, especially during these groggy, hot days of late summer. That’s true for me. More often than dream memories, I’ll awaken with a tune or fragment of a lyric in my head. Recently, I woke up with the first verse of “America the Beautiful” as an ear worm. Why that song? Why this time of year? Going down a rabbit hole via online search engines, I found three additional verses, along with some background about the author and the conditions that prompted the song’s writing. 

The lyrics for “America the Beautiful” were penned by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College. She began the poem while spending the summer of 1893 teaching English at a school in Colorado Springs. She and several other teachers made a day trip up nearby Pike’s Peak.  From its summit, they could see the fertile plains below. Bates scribbled the first lines of what later became “America the Beautiful” into a small notebook she carried with her:

“Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”

In 1893, there was a major economic downturn, creating distress for many laboring families and farmers. This became a theme of the second verse, which implores God to help mend America’s flaws:

“America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-countrol, thy liberty in law.”

The poem first appeared in print in a weekly journal around the time of Independence Day in 1895. Bates included a third verse lauding the sacrifices of earlier soldiers: 

“Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.” 

Bates’ final expanded version, published in 1913, contained a fourth verse laying out a vision of an America that lived up to its ideals:  

“Oh, beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.” 

In 1918, when the armistice ending the first world war was announced, U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe burst out singing “America the Beautiful.” The song, much easier than “The Star Spangled Banner,” has since become an unofficial American anthem. It’s been performed by dozens of American pop idols, including Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Although it’s rare to hear all four verses, versions have entertained audiences at Super Bowls, presidential inaugurals, and hosts of Independence Day celebrations. One of the most moving performances was a guitar-accompanied rendition by country singer Willie Nelson and a host of entertainment luminaries in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

In previous U.S. political cycles, a waking aspect of “dog days” has often been a brief reprieve from political campaigning. Media outlets have provided less news about our government, which sort of “goes on vacation” along with many of the rest of us. Campaign advertising, social media posts, email blasts, robocalls have stayed quiescent until after Labor Day in September. No such luck this year. We’re being subjected to death by a thousand tweets.

Regardless, until after Labor Day, I’ll keep ignoring as much of the political hoopla as I can. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the August 12, 1859 birthday of Katharine Lee Bates. I’m going to relish her lyrics of patriot dreams of an America, with our caring people and stunning nature, that will one day be beautiful again. 

The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley

The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley   —by Jinny Batterson

Traveling in Europe produces a different sense of time—my previous benchmarks for “old” settlements, the historic recreations of Williamsburg and Jamestown, Virginia, become mere youngsters in comparison with the Greek and Roman era ruins that dot much of western Europe.  Even the relatively “new” churches and cathedrals of France generally date from centuries earlier than the 1607-or-thereabouts thatched mud huts of the initial European settlers at Jamestown.

While the U.S. Southwest contains mysterious remnants of earlier civilizations—Anasazi settlements that flourished about a thousand years ago before being suddenly abandoned—these ruins are still relative newbies compared with the cave and cliff sites excavated over the past century and a half along the middle reaches of the Vézère valley in southwestern France. 

According to the best available methods for establishing rough eras, early humans first appeared in the Vézère Valley nearly half a million years ago. I remember reading earlier about the now famous prehistoric paintings at Lascaux—elaborate depictions of animals from about 20,000 years ago, discovered by accident in 1940 by youngsters exploring a cave.

Though I haven’t yet visited the replica of that cave (the original was closed to visitors during the 1960’s because the crush of tourists with their attendant humidity and CO2 was damaging the paintings), I recently wound up along the Vézère where some even earlier settlements have been discovered—a small village called Les Eyzies. After a morning’s taxi ride through misty weather, our driver let my husband and me out at the small vacation settlement at the edge of town where we’d booked a stay. We dropped our luggage at the front desk, then set out with our umbrellas to explore. The first large building we came across was a welcome center for the area’s prehistory attractions, with some basic exhibits about various Vézère valley sites (over 80 of them have been excavated at least partially so far) and how archeology is conducted. 

Because we’d opted not to rent a car and because taxi rates were fairly pricey in this mostly rural area, we limited our explorations to what we could reach on foot. First we visited a hillside complex, l’Abri Pataud, that had been explored from the 1950’s through the 1970’s by a team led by Harvard professor H.L. Movius. Due to periodic freeze/thaw erosion and to the situation and geology of the site, multiple levels of tools and remains were found dating from about 35,000 to about 20,000 years ago, encompassing both an interglacial warm period and an ice age.  The earliest relics seem to indicate the recurrent presence of nomadic hunter-gatherers who may have used the site as a short-term hunting camp. Later levels indicate somewhat more settled use of the shelter, which became deeper over time. 

The following day, we bought tickets to the National Prehistory Museum, a modern cliffside complex that has been expanded several times. Extensive exhibits of stone tools and of skeletons of prehistoric animals and humans were leavened with videos and graphics of likely tool-making techniques during the various periods. In between visits to the area’s prehistory, we sampled some of the crafts and foods of the modern small town, which provides a hearty welcome to school groups, vacationing families, and older tourists like us.

As contemporary humans continue the sometimes difficult twin transitions in global climate and human consciousness, I’m grateful for increased awareness of these long-enduring prehistoric ancestors. Their progress and evolution may seem glacial to us, but they bequeathed to their modern descendants the basic intelligence to adapt their living styles during drastic shifts in their physical environment. They also gave us a less tangible, but no less important inheritance—a sense of gentle humor and whimsy.  May we use all these tools well.     

A modern roadside ad in a town full of prehistory

Ladders and Circles

Ladders and Circles    —by Jinny Batterson

On a recent Sunday morning, our congregation sang “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” an adaptation of a 19th century African-American spiritual, in a service about accountability. Even though the word “accountability” has been mouthed by those in positions of power for more than a human generation—holding teachers accountable for students’ performance, holding office holders accountable for appropriate sexual conduct, and so on—many of our current social, political, and environmental structures are not accountable, either to human or to planetary well-being.  If I understood the hymn’s relevance, its implication was that our society has failed to provide needed ladders for those in poverty or distress to climb their way out, or even to reach an escape ladder at all.  Our minister urged us to consider both personal and societal changes to bring our behavior into closer alignment with our professed values of human dignity and worth.  Later in the day, I got a second dose of “accountability audit” from social activist William Barber II, who came to Raleigh to speak at a different congregation as part of the intensification of a nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. Barber combined individuals’ stories of living in poverty with statistics about our worsening wealth imbalances, war profiteering, voter suppression, and degradation of the natural environment. He highlighted the huge gaps between what we profess as a nation founded on the principle of a “more perfect union” and the ways many of our current institutions operate.

Through both morning and evening church, I kept the image of ladders in mind. But I also remembered a different shape. In our UU hymnal, “Singling the Living Tradition,” we’ve frequently borrowed hymn tunes from other Christian traditions and tweaked the lyrics to make the language less full of “almighty God” talk and more inclusive of the glorious spectrum of humanity. During the morning’s service, I noticed that on the page facing the hymn about Jacob’s ladder was a more recent addition, “We Are Dancing Sarah’s Circle.”

Most of my life I’ve been uncomfortable with a strictly hierarchical view of the world. Of course when I was a child, I knew that my parents were nearly always in charge of our family, but as I grew up, I increasingly found that overly general mentions of ladders and of “higher” or “lower” could set my teeth on edge. I often prefer images of circles, where power and movement can flow in many directions—in, out, up, down, right, left, forward, back. I have yet to come up with any consistent long-term way to balance my needs for hierarchies and fairly fixed structures with my needs to remain fluid and adaptable—the balance shifts over time. Implying a gendered component from the names “Jacob” and “Sarah” in the facing hymns would be imperfect and incomplete—the term “pecking order,” after all, refers to hens, not to roosters. 

Most of those in positions of formal leadership struggle with issues of hierarchy and ladders, I believe. Aside from pressing a “big button” and potentially blowing the planet to pieces, or firing advisors who are perceived as insufficiently loyal, our national chief executive has few powers as an individual. He/she must rely on the acquiescence of others to carry out his/her commands. He/she must cajole, inspire, and/or bully others into doing his/her bidding. 

Those in circles of various kinds face other challenges—determining who is in charge of what can be confusing. Diffuse power can lead to overall powerlessness. Yet in many ways circles are more resilient. The absence or death of a single member, or even of a proportion of the overall membership, does not necessarily destroy a circle. Often new members step in to fill the gaps. Circle members learn a variety of skills, so that leadership can rotate with little decrease in overall effectiveness. A different hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” written in the early 20th century and frequently adapted since, speaks to the long life of circles.

So let’s celebrate ladders and work to make them more accessible to all who need them, but let’s not forget that circles are important, too.

Birthing a Book

Birthing a Book    —by Jinny Batterson

As I near the May 1, 2018 official launch date of my first-ever published book, Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, I’ve been pondering the similarities and differences between creating a child and creating a book.  Both are exciting; both can be scary at times; both involve some pain and expense; both require time and energy. 

The specifics, however, can vary. The gestation period for a baby falls within a somewhat predictable range, typically 7-9 months. For a book, the period from first inkling to publication can be as short as a few months or as long as most of a lifetime. The process of going from initial cells/initial words to baby or book nearly always involves a certain amount of risk and uncertainty. There are times in both processes when I’ve been uncomfortable, when I’ve questioned why I ever decided to embark on this adventure in the first place, when what I’ve wanted most of all is for the “pregnancy” to reach completion.

In both types of birthing, I’ve benefited immensely from the help and advice of those with broader, deeper experience than mine. It is only half jokingly that I’ve complimented one of my editors on her midwifing skills. Again, some differences: the labor pains for a book are less physical, but can still be intense—for a couple of weeks now, I’ve often awakened in the middle of the night with a stray thought about one more person I’d like to alert to the book’s impending arrival. I’ve had pangs of regret for not completing the publication process sooner, so some of those who’ve already left the planet might have had a chance to view the finished product.

So now, as my mom used to say once she’d completed the dress rehearsal for a musical or theater production, it’s all over but the shouting. What sort of world will greet my China memoir?  What changes in global politics and natural environment will Where the Great Wall Ends experience as it “grows up”?  These are factors beyond my control.

I can only hope that I’ve written as true an account as I can of my experiences, and that some of what I’ve lived through will help generate greater understanding in the lives of my readers. Happy birthday, book!   

Teaching about Easter in Zhengzhou, China

Teaching About Easter in Zhengzhou, China  —by Jinny Batterson

By now, I’ve spent several springtimes in various parts of China. In most places, I’ve not been very aware of Easter. Christianity is not a strong part of Chinese tradition, and at certain times and places the modern Chinese government has discouraged or even banned celebrations of the Easter holiday. Of course, most of our Easter decorations are made in China. In 2018, over 200 Chinese companies manufactured or distributed Easter decorations —might a bit of the festival’s flavor rub off on factory workers who fashion bunnies and candy and greeting cards? 

The first time I taught English in China, in 2002 in the central provincial capital of Zhengzhou, Henan, I happened to be there when Western Easter fell. Easter Sunday would occur about midway through the several weeks I spent at a private high school that specialized in preparing students for advanced study overseas. The previous week, I’d noticed that the city’s most upscale hotel had a rain-resistant outdoor display of larger than life bunnies and decorated plastic eggs. 

“Aha,” I thought, “an intercultural teaching opportunity!” 

Not wanting to be viewed as a religious proselytizer, something uniformly frowned on by Chinese authorities, I scoured the city’s markets and stores for the more secular accoutrements of this springtime festival, with help and advice from the school principal’s wife. After several shopping expeditions, I’d scrounged up jelly beans and chocolate bunnies, plus fabric, poster paper, glue, staples, and fake flowers to make Easter bonnets. I scheduled a “foreign teacher’s Sunday afternoon Easter social” for one of the larger indoor classrooms and publicized the event to all my classes and to the school staff. Although Sunday was not an official teaching day, the social drew the majority of my students,  plus a few of the Chinese teachers and staff.

“Many American towns,” I explained, “hold afternoon Easter parades. Everyone is glad when the weather turns pleasant after the chill of winter. People dress in their finest spring clothes, including elaborate flowered hats for the women. Sometimes people bring their dogs along and put costumes on them, too. In my city of Richmond, Virginia, people walk up and down about a mile of a major street which has been temporarily closed to automobile traffic. They show off their fine outfits and greet their neighbors.”

Some of the Zhengzhou teen girl students crafted elaborate flowered hats. The most chic pretended that our room’s center aisle was a fashion runway. Some English got spoken, if the conversations rarely moved much beyond the level of “Nice hat!” All the candy and snacks got eaten.

This year I’m spending springtime in the U.S.  Easter is fast approaching. I miss the pageantry and excitement that I’ve usually noticed in previous years spent in America.  The Christian message of forgiveness and redemption seems notably absent—we often are too busy sniping and snarling at each other, discussing the latest scandals on social media and rarely talking with our physical neighbors.  I wonder sometimes whether my Zhengzhou students might have been closer to the spirit of Easter than our purportedly Christian-majority U.S. has become.  How would it be to put aside our perceived differences and to take an afternoon stroll together? Even if our conversations rarely get beyond “Nice hat!”, perhaps we could make a start toward healing some of our self-inflicted societal fractures.