Category Archives: Spiritual musings

Falling into Grace

Falling into Grace    —by Jinny Batterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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I Am (Aging)…

I Am…

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

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

Book Review: The Crane Dance by William R. Finger

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

(JourneyCake Spirit: Raleigh, NC, 2016)   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Factionalism, Fanaticism, and Mysticism

Factionalism, Fanaticism, and Mysticism    —by Jinny Batterson

A number of years ago, I spent part of a weekend peace workshop in a session led by an older Sufi originally from Syria.  Sufism is a mystical strain of Islam that sidesteps the often fractious distinctions between Sunni and Shia Moslems, instead emphasizing spiritual practices to get closer to the divine. This mystic, somewhat akin to a member of a Christian contemplative order, but also active in wider society, had been raised in the city of Aleppo. He’d received some of his early religious training there before emigrating to the U.S.  He seemed to me calm, temperate, and wise in the ways of the world without being worldly.

He laid out for us a continuum of various kinds of peace work each of us could engage in, and warned us of the dangers of lapsing into either factionalism or fanaticism as we worked together. By his account, factionalism was most likely to arise among a group of people who agreed on the ends they sought, but disagreed about the means for achieving them. So, for example, a large group could favor creating living wages for low-wage workers. Within that overall group, one faction might propose engaging in civil disobedience, while another might prefer a social media campaign, still a third might opt to support political candidates who promised to raise the legal minimum wage, and a fourth might propose corporate tax abatement as a way to produce more higher-wage jobs. The extent to which the various factions could stay focussed on their common goal despite their widely differing approaches would impact their overall effectiveness.

In contrast, fanaticism, he taught us, was likely to blossom when there was agreement about means, but disagreement or lack of clarity about the ends to be achieved. Dictionary definitions of fanaticism mention uncritical enthusiasm, zeal, ardor, and a mindless adherence to a ruler or set of rules. Politics and religion are the realms most prone to fanaticism. Nearly all of us are susceptible, though few of us develop full-blown cases. Unfortunately, it takes only a few to do substantial damage—witness the recent example of  Dylann Roof, who shot nine people dead at a Bible study session in Charleston, SC, or the earlier instance of Timothy McVeigh, who rammed an explosive-filled truck into a federal building in Oklahoma City, OK, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds more. When fanatics join together in groups, their capacity for damage can multiply, as they reinforce each other.  Fanatics may yearn for a vague, undifferentiated rosy future (or return to a rosier past) reachable if only “they” were not present—be they immigrants, blacks, Indians, Jews, gays and lesbians, or an unpopular president and his entourage. Fanatics accept promises of security and status in return for toeing a line laid out by some sect or governing authority. Strains of fanaticism are likely to resurface when people feel that their livelihoods or social standing are threatened.

At this point in U.S. and global politics, it can seem that we have incorporated some of the worst aspects of both factionalism and fanaticism into our civic processes and discourse. We seesaw between partisan gridlock and partisan whiplash, with different political factions often more interested in damaging their opponents or proving them wrong than in advancing the common good. Meanwhile, both traditional and social media have become inundated with inflamed and inflaming fanatical rhetoric, most based only loosely on fact, if at all.    

In my mostly secular life, mysticism has rarely surfaced, but the few incidents I remember have left a strong impression: an extended group yoga meditation session in which our breaths briefly became one breath; a knowledge, without physical communication, that a childhood friend was dying in a distant city, prompting me to pray for his safe transition from this life to whatever comes next; a sense, when I was later hospitalized overnight with a potentially life-threatening condition, that the prayers and good wishes of friends and acquaintances were pulsing through me, providing needed healing and strength. These brief encounters with whatever we choose to label the transcendent have gifted me with the understanding that we are all somehow related, inextricably connected. Imperfect creatures that we are, we can overcome both factionalism and fanaticism. Ends and means are inevitably linked. Twentieth century activist and theologian Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed the challenge this way, in a sermon broadcast at Christmas 1967, a year just as fraught as the times we are living through now:  “…in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and, ultimately, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”

Hauling Rocks Uphill

Hauling Rocks Uphill     —by Jinny Batterson

My particular piedmont town has experienced dramatic population growth in the past half century—nearly a thirty-fold increase. However, the steepest slopes of our region, sculpted as it is with lots of hills and gullies, restrict or defy human building. These areas have often been allotted to park use, with bicycle and walking paths at their base: greenways. As a recent arrival, I’m not sure, walking our greenways between tract home developments, condos, and apartment complexes, what our landscape looked like when far fewer people lived here. One thing I’m fairly certain of, though: in times past, there were fewer jagged rocks lining our freshets and streams. 

A large granite quarry sits at the north edge of town. Throughout the area, many recesses in our ravines are filled with angular mid-to-large-sized rocks trucked in from the quarry. Rocks line our bridge approaches and help terrace the steepest washes.  These rocks aren’t nearly as scenic as naturally rounded river stones would be, but they help reduce erosion and serve to slow run-off when we have sudden downpours, which happens fairly often these days. Over time, some of the stones get covered with vegetation, leaves, or mosses, and blend better with their surroundings.   

Geologists have elaborated a plate-tectonic theory of earth’s crust that goes a long way toward explaining our peaks and valleys—as tectonic plates collide, mountains are pushed up. Elevations shift. Former sea beds get elevated. Yet, over geological time, even the tallest mountains are worn down by erosion, their rocks dissolving into sand or soil or carried back still-formed into the seas.

Until I moved here, much of my context about hauling rocks came from an ancient Greek myth and its modern French retelling—the story of Sisyphus.  Sisyphus was a Corinthian king who, on multiple occasions, fooled the gods and cheated death. When he finally did die, as even tricksters must, the gods took their revenge by condemning him to an eternity of pushing a large rock uphill, only to have it roll back down again once he’d reached the top. French author Albert Camus wrote a widely quoted 1942 essay in which he claimed that much of modern life had exposed mankind to Sisyphean tragedy, but that embracing life’s challenges was a way to live fully, anyway:  “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

For the past year or so, I’ve been engaged physically in a small-scale rock hauling effort of my own, shoring up the pad surrounding our heat pump, trying to reduce erosion and run-off in our fairly steep yard by hand-carrying surplus rocks up from a nearby floodplain. My landscaping efforts are not perfect, but they seem to help a little.  This past Christmas, I visited a small mountain resort town in California and stayed at a country inn whose previous owners had laboriously hauled lots and lots of rounded stones from nearby creek beds. They used the stones to craft a huge stone-and-masonry fireplace, plus a massive interior wall that was as beautiful as the fireplace was functional.     

The present era seems to be a time when many of us also are engaged in figurative rock-hauling. Institutions of self-government that we long took for granted seem under stress, eroding, being carried downhill toward a totalitarian sea.  It can seem daunting to write one more letter, attend one more demonstration, make one more phone call, have one more discussion across ideological lines, pray one more prayer. And yet this work is just as necessary as physical rock-hauling. Even when human societies get warped by fear and hatred, it’s still necessary to continue—we, too, must stay happy in the struggle toward the heights.

Twitter Fodder

Twitter Fodder    —by Jinny Batterson

I don’t have a Twitter account, nor am I ever likely to. I’m too wordy to accept that much that’s worth saying can fit into just 140 characters.  So I was somewhat surprised the other morning when I awoke after a good night’s sleep to find a Twitter-length snippet pushing its way into my journal: 

If you play only zero-sum games, you’re likely to wind up a big fat zero.

Fewer than 100 characters, even including a couple of adjectives that could, if need be, be left out. Few big words, except maybe “zero-sum,” a shorthand way of explaining the attitude that for me to win, you have to lose an equal amount from a fixed total, with no room for sharing or “win-win” solutions. “Big fat zero” may be slightly old-fashioned, but familiar as a taunt to anyone who’s ever spent time on an elementary school playground.

 What did it mean for me to have such a short saying barging into my thoughts, and maybe even my writing?  After a bit, a memory surfaced. I was back at our public high school, in my favorite teacher’s French class. Mrs. Nash didn’t so much teach French as she taught life. One of her favorite tools was a series of aphorisms, or short sayings, attributed to historical French writers. The discussion I remember best centered around a pithy quote by philosopher Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, who lived in France starting in the late 17th century. He wrote a lot about the conditions and rights of man. He is credited with having said:

Every man has his price.

As Mrs. Nash guided the conversation, we fairly quickly broadened our definition of “price” to include things other than a monetary sum or material item. Suppose the price involved our being embarrassed or made very uncomfortable? What about sacrificing our health? Suppose the price meant having a loved one put in danger? What if it demanded that we give up cherished ideas or principles? Suppose the price pitted short-term gain against long-term survival?

We never resolved the issue. Later discussions, in Mrs. Nash’s class and elsewhere, were based on a cross-section of similar sayings, not all of them by French authors:

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?
People who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little.
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778) 

No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.
Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.
(Adam Smith, 1723-1790) 

No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
(Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797)         

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.
(John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873) 

It gradually dawned on me that these “aphorisms” were the “tweets” of their times, considerably wiser than the 72 characters that had descended on me, or, I’m guessing, much else that gets posted on Twitter these days. 

As many of our online civic discussions continue to deteriorate into name-calling and evermore selective choice of facts, I’m sometimes tempted to despair. But I know that despair never changes anything for the better.  So I take frequent breaks to slow down and collect my thoughts, grateful to have this luxury at the current stage of my life. Not all do. However, all of us have time to take a deep breath. We can all briefly turn off or tune out the many distractions of our increasingly distracted society.  We all can imagine a place and time when we felt safe and cared for.  From deep within this setting of safety and love comes an important insight, one so short that it could fit ten times in a standard tweet:  

Pay attention.

Bucolic Dystopia

Bucolic Dystopia    —by Jinny Batterson

My sister’s small farm suffered last summer.
Rains came in torrents, or not at all.
Temperatures soared; tempers frayed.
The cow calved, then keeled over dead–
Likely from lack of calcium, the vet said, afterwards. 

When the hail hit in staccato bursts, as wind from
A blackened sky whipped at the roof,
Light and delight both seemed extinguished.
After a storm, it was impossible not to track
Mud indoors. In dry times, dust seeped everywhere.

In September, I visited my usually sunny sister.
Her in-person mantra belied the optimistic message
On her answering machine. Rather than talk of
Nature’s beauty, bounty, and balance, she
Spoke instead of dark, dirt, and death. 

Surrounding market towns that once had
Boomed with mills and small factories were
Struggling.  Good-paying jobs were being
Replaced by robots, or else leaving for
Places with lower costs and laxer rules.

A small living was still possible through tourism.
Soft-skinned visitors from more urban areas
Came seeking a quieter, simpler existence.
For short stretches, local inns and B&B’s could
Simulate the slower, muted rhythms of earlier rural life.

It was tempting to blame some distant bureaucrat,
A too-rigid regulation, an absent fat cat,
For the ongoing distress, to look to some bullying
Billionaire to fix things and bring back prosperity.
Meanwhile, glaciers, whole ice sheets, dissolved.

We all share responsibility for the mess we’ve
Created.  A colleague whose childhood farmstead
Now sprouted McMansions lamented: “You can’t eat money.”
The Gospels admonish: “What will it profit a person to
Gain the whole world, but lose his or her own soul?” 

Questions both broader and deeper than the dyslexia
Of mixing up our b’s and d’s arise: Can we find the
Will to bring forth more beauty, bounty and balance
Without denying that dark, dirt, and death
Will also always be part of the mix?  

The Spirit of Draining the Swamp

U.S. Election Day is over a month behind us. Depending on our traditions and beliefs, we may be preparing to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or just the returning of longer days. Many Americans are beginning to feel our way toward a future–a future still very unsure. During the final days of the fall campaign, I began to see a new crop of political slogans, advocating a particular vote as a way to “drain the swamp of D.C. politics.” I’ve been tossing around various dream versions of what “draining the swamp” in a wider sense might look like.

Usually I’m more of a word person than an image person, but I have several cartoon images in my mental collection that may be relevant. All are accessible via Internet. The first is a 1971 Walt Kelly panel from his long-running cartoon about Pogo the possum and his beloved swamp, a mythical variation of the Okefenokee. Pogo is treading across a morass of human-generated trash near his swamp home, stepping carefully to avoid hurting his feet. Beside him, Albert the alligator is waxing eloquent about pristine wilderness. Pogo is having none of the hype.

“We have met the enemy,” he retorts, “and he is us.”

The second cartoon is a 1976 strip by New Yorker cartoonist Dana Fradon, giving a baseball style box score for a supposed game between realists and idealists. Though some innings are scoreless, in most, the Realists make between one and six runs, while the Idealists are held to no score. However, at the end of the game’s nine innings, the final score reads: “Idealists 1; Realists 0.” The third cartoon was sent to me by a friend last summer. I haven’t yet been able to trace its original source–I believe it first appeared in 2014 in a Quebec-based news outlet. It shows an audience for a sermon or speech of some kind.

“Who wants change?” the leader intones. All hands go up. The follow-up question: “Who wants to change?” gets no hands at all, only a series of downcast looks.

Pogo and Fradon’s baseball players and the 2014 speech audience help me stay hopeful that our badly divisive election may have the unintended consequence of helping bring us together. We sorely need to drain the noxious elements of our personal and collective swamps, while retaining the generativity of the diverse wetlands they also represent.

Perhaps this election can draw us to deeper service. Our nation’s founders were realistic enough to know that we are not likely ever to create a totally perfect union, yet idealistic enough to begin our Constitution with the phrase “to create a more perfect union.”  In the best tradition of our founders, and of more recent visionary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may we use the day of service we’ll celebrate as his holiday on Monday, January 16, 2017, to stop obsessing about who “won” the election. Instead, may we rededicate ourselves to the spirit of service that has meant so much for the progress and maturation of our beloved and varying country. If each of us will reach out to help and be helped by a person or group we would not normally associate with, we can begin the needed process of healing ourselves and each other, in the true spirit of draining the swamp.

Tribute to Leonard Cohen

Tribute to Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)    —by Jinny Batterson

(Leonard Cohen, peripatetic Canadian poet and singer-songwriter, died in Los Angeles on November 7, 2016, a bit too early to absorb the results of the latest U.S. election.  I’m convinced, though, that his spirit still prowls. This short tribute incorporates snippets of several of Cohen’s best-known lyrics: Anthem, You Want it Darker, Suzanne, The Story of Isaac, and Democracy)  For a picture of Cohen near the end of his long life, see:

http://www.billboard.com/files/styles/article_main_image/public/media/leonard-cohen-2013-billboard-650×430.jpg

The bells that still will ring
These post-election days are ringing darker.
Though some the victor’s fulsome praises sing,
For others, the rifts are getting starker.

I saw him only once, we both were young.
In an Expo coffeehouse near Suzanne’s river,
He curled his raspy voice, lips, teeth and tongue
Around the credo that we lean toward love forever.

Bombastic tweets of blunt and bloodied hammering
May make hate and fear here for a time hold sway.
Yet, through the crack in everything
Democracy’s still coming to the U.S.A.

Practicing Gestational Politics

Practicing Gestational Politics   –by Jinny Batterson

Now that we have apparently elected
a prime verbal ejaculator
to be our putative leader,
it will not do to turn our
hurt and anger inward,
nor will it suffice to cry
out in rage and disgust.

What we must do
instead is to take a short respite,
then to return with renewed dedication
to building bridges across the chasms of race,
class, gender, urban/rural, national origin, affection
that this retrograde campaign has opened up.
We must nurture ourselves, along with
the next generations of humans
and of other creatures
on this lovely planet.