Category Archives: Spiritual musings

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. 

Spring Hopes Eternal

Spring Hopes Eternal   –by Jinny Batterson

It was a rough winter–
Seesawing temperatures, sniffles, scandals
shootings,
Bluster and traded insults
masquerading as diplomacy.

Yet spring again comes:
Dandelions, daffodils do their duty, even in snow,
As sun-colored harbingers of later blossoms.
Local ponds welcome migrating flocks;
The woods are awash in birdsong.

The soul stirs, throwing off its
somnolent blanket.
What new creation will we grow
now that spring has come again?

 

 

Civic Faith, Civic Hope, Civic Love

Civic Faith, Civic Hope, Civic Love     —by Jinny Batterson

This past Saturday started out chilly, with intermittent showers. When I first awoke, I felt discouraged about political shenanigans that have infected multiple levels of our government— disagreement about state and federal voting maps, with lawsuits, hastily crafted legislation, and lots of confusion about districts for upcoming elections; serious questions about the impartiality of our judiciary and proper procedures for selecting judges; looming ballooning federal deficits; periodic government shutdowns; inadequate funding for education and health care; voter suppression; little progress on comprehensive immigration reform; climate change dissension; despoiling of rivers, forests, coastlines; White House staff scandals.

Rather than roll over and try to go back to sleep, though, I got up, got out my umbrella and rain gear, then took the public bus to downtown Raleigh to participate in this year’s “HistoricThousands on Jones Street” march and rally, the twelfth such annual public gathering. HKonJ has become an increasingly potent way for ordinary citizens to voice their concerns near the legislative offices of our North Carolina elected representatives. Multiple non-partisan groups had sent me invitations to the march. Arriving at the assembly area, I saw clusters of fellow prospective marchers with well-made, well-used banners and signs. However, what most intrigues me about such gatherings are the individual signs, banners, and costumes participants come up with to express their views. Among the first I spotted was worn by a neatly bearded man—a t-shirt that proclaimed in yellow letters against a black background: “Make Tacos, Not Walls.” Not far away, a married couple with a religious bent held up complementary signs—his explained “I’m a privileged white male who believes in liberty and justice for all,” while hers was briefer: “That ‘love thy neighbor’ thing? I meant that!—@GOD.” Two younger guys carried a poster with slightly wobbly large letters. In bold black and red, it demanded: “Who voted for Gerry Mander?”, an indictment of the more and more brazen legislative ploys to create voting districts that unfairly advantage selected incumbents, groups, or political parties.    

As a woman, I was especially receptive to signs crafted by women. Just before the formal march started, I talked with two female friends who’d come from different parts of North Carolina to meet at HKonJ. One had written on a rough piece of cardboard, the kind sometimes used by homeless people at major intersections, “Hope Will Never Be Silent!”  Her companion had a slightly more elaborate poster, in vibrant colors, “Love Is Why We Are Here.”

Once showers resumed after the march, attendance dwindled. Many of us sought shelter in local restaurants and shops. As I headed down Fayetteville Street toward a local snack bar run by an immigrant family, I noticed two women seated at an outdoor table, deep in conversation. One had on a flowered hat of the type sported by the political satire group the “Raging Grannies.” 

After a bit, they interrupted their talk long enough for me to ask for a photo of them and their sign, a quote from earlier social activist Dorothy Day: “Love is the Only Solution.”   

The HKonJ event helped renew my faith in the capacities and decency of ordinary citizens. We came together to express, for whatever issues most compelled us, our stakes in this city, state, country and planet. I’d guess that within the overall march were folks whose views opposed each other’s on one or more issues. To be able to “walk in each other’s shoes” will take further work, listening, and mutual respect. Nevertheless, despite the weather, we all walked together, chanted together, laughed together, sometimes even sang together.

Long ago, a prolific letter writer explained that faith, hope, and love abide forever. This is as true of our civic life as it is of our religious and spiritual lives. With civic faith, civic hope, and, above all, civic love, I’m persuaded that we can together get ourselves out of the challenging set of messes we’ve gotten ourselves into.  Happy Valentine’s Day! 

Quilted Dreams

Quilted Dreams    —by Jinny Batterson

There’ve been times, since I outgrew visions of sugarplums,
When I’ve dreaded the coming of winter. Short days, short tempers, cold,
Damp, sniffles, indoor confinement. Winter’s had little to recommend it.

This year’s cold weather was late arriving. Days shortened, but it was
Nearly Thanksgiving before there was frost on the pumpkins. Our schedules
Got disrupted: when to test the furnace, bring houseplants indoors?

Finally, the evening arrived when a blanket was insufficient warmth.
The quilt could be brought out from the linen closet, shaken vigorously,
Then inserted between a fresh sheet and the all-season bedspread.

As my life has grown less hectic, I’ve come to relish the longer
Darkness of late autumn: a chance to sip cocoa before snuggling down
Early, perhaps to drift into episodes of remembered dreams.

I cannot guarantee that the quilt is the cause, but cold weather
Seems to bring more comforting visions: brilliant landscapes visited
Earlier in person or in imagination, peopled with friends and warm welcomes. 

Often I visit cities new to me, revel in explorations and travel that
Can be more pleasant in dreams than in reality–no crowded
Rail cars, no plugged toilets, no mewling youngsters in the seat behind.

The details no longer matter as much. It’s the comfort that counts.
Even when my mind and body are saddest, my waking
Anxieties will sometimes give way to quilted dreams.

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.

 

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.”