Category Archives: travel

Diaspora

Horrified, we watch the bombs fall,
The buildings crumble. Another
Round of refugees flees
Across artificial borders,
Seeking some sort of
Sanctuary.

Observers or participants, we carry
Revulsion as baggage. Perhaps,
We feel an aggrieved resignation.
Fear, loathing–why such destruction
Mischaracterized as conquest,
Again?

So many have fled our birthplaces,
Impacted by overt violence,
Or, having survived more subtle
Pressures, hunting for better
Lives elsewhere.

Wherever our homeland,
Whatever our current location,
Our wanderings began at birth–
Expelled or pulled from the womb
Once it became confining and
Uncomfortable.

We’re all part of a human diaspora,
Pilgrims, seekers, strangers, yet
Inescapably kin.

Sooner or later, whether
By war, accident, injury,
Illness, or old age,
Our diasporas
Will coalesce.

Each of us will return to earth.
We’ll be subsumed to oneness,
All of us once more at
Home.

On to Kyiv, and Then What?

Like many globally in this media-saturated world, I’m distressed about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by its larger neighbor Russia. For weeks, we’ve seen reports of a buildup of Russian troops and military equipment along the borders with Ukraine. Now it seems that troops and equipment are on the move and a full-scale invasion has started. The aim, as nearly all American pundits and experts tell us, is to topple the existing Ukrainian government and to install a regime more to Russia’s liking. 

This is a scenario that has played out countless times throughout history by whatever superior military power desired to dominate its neighbor(s). The United States of America has not been immune to using such tactics, despite our protestations of “spreading democracy,” and so on. 

Problems can arise in the aftermath of a military conquest, as we’ve seen most recently and tragically in contemporary Afghanistan. Conquering and governing are two rather different domains. Once a new regime gets installed, who repairs the infrastructure that’s been damaged or destroyed during the conquest?  Who provides the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter—to a cowed, needy, and probably sullen civilian population?  Who firms up borders and stems the outflow of brain and talent of those eager and able to leave? Who works to reduce the likelihood that resentments will fester and eventually result in further armed conflicts when the balance of military power shifts?  

I’ve never traveled in Ukraine. Prior to the current war, my main point of reference to Ukraine was the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, a now-decommissioned power plant near the Ukrainian/Russian border, about 70 miles from Kyiv. Much earlier, I was taught courses in Russian language and culture by a college professor who’d escaped from Ukraine during the final days of World War II. When “Dr. K.” taught us, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was near its height, the Cold War was raging, and the availability of non-official information about conditions in any socialist republic was severely limited. As our language facility in Russian improved, Dr. K. showed us articles from the Soviet press that glorified the Soviet state without mentioning any possible problems. 

An ancillary point of reference to things Ukrainian: I’d learned to recognize a musical piece, “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I liked the somewhat ponderous music, but didn’t make much effort to visualize an actual gate. It turns out that there was not actually a “great gate” when composer Modest Mussorgsky wrote his piece during the late 19th century. The Kiev-related piece was the final composition of a suite called “Pictures at an Exhibition” that featured an artist’s rendering of what a memorial gate might look like. It would have celebrated the survival of Tsar Alexander II after a failed 1866 assassination attempt. In much earlier times, there had been a gate, erected during the 11th century reign of Yaroslav the Wise as part of city fortifications. (Per the sources I referenced, an actual memorial gate was reconstructed in Kyiv in 1982 by a then-waning USSR.)  

The impulse to conquest seems to be part of our human heritage, from the earliest cave dweller with a bigger club, through the desolation wrought by 1940’s era fire bombings and atomic bombs, through the 1990’s Rwandan genocide conducted mostly with machetes, plus all the other “more conventional” weaponry used before and since. If we are to survive as a species, it seems to me that we need to cultivate more assiduously a countervailing impulse to nurture. The members of the military I know best and most admire are much more eager to assist after natural or man-made disasters than they are eager for combat and conquest. The ongoing disaster of our current global viral pandemic, plus the slower-moving planet-wide disaster that is climate change, can use all our ingenuity and empathy. These and other disasters call out for the greatest exercise of our nurturing sides that we can muster. 

If or when Kyiv “falls,” then what?   

Meditation/Appreciation of “Earth Was Given as a Garden”

“Earth was given as a garden, cradle for humanity; 
tree of life and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery.
Here was home for all your creatures born of land and sky and sea;
all created in your image, all to live in harmony.”

The first time I was exposed to this hymn was at a UU music camp a decade or so ago. This paean to our earthly garden echoed a lot of my beliefs about the value of gardens and the importance of caring for our home planet ( hear a rendition of all three verses at YouTube.com/watch?v=hmlV65kdt84). (A later set of words to the same tune also touches some of the same themes: “Blue Boat Home” by Peter Mayer, in later UU hymnal Singing the Journey as #1064, at YouTube.com/watch?v=0XziR3M2wYk). 

The first time I gardened was in childhood, I don’t remember exactly when. One season that sticks in my mind is a dry summer in Maryland in the mid-1950’s. I would have been about eight years old. During this drought, it was my job to water the bell pepper plants in our small hillside garden. A couple of times a week, I would haul a bucket of water uphill from the nearest outdoor spigot and carefully surround each pepper plant with water. My dad had dug a saucer-shaped trench around each pepper so the water would have more chances to soak in, rather than run off.

Later, when our family moved nearby to a larger house with a lot more land, we had a bigger garden, too far away from the house to water. Most years, extra water was not needed. I don’t think I contributed much to this garden, aside from eating the produce. I remember we used to grow corn. Somehow, the homegrown ears tasted sweeter than anything we could buy at the grocery store. Despite the predations of area raccoons, there was nearly always enough for a few delicious corn-on-the-cob meals. 

We also grew tomatoes. The red fruits were a bone of contention between human eaters and the local turtle population. Nearly every year, we’d find at least a couple of ripe tomatoes with substantial chunks eaten out of them. Actually, we didn’t mind the turtles’ inroads too much. Having turtles in the tomato patch made it easier to find a competitor for that year’s 4th of July turtle race—a neighborhood tradition. For several weeks before the 4th, we kids were busy scouting out turtles and putting them into temporary quarters in cardboard boxes or somewhat more formal animal cages. We’d feed them lettuce and vegetable table scraps and try to “train” them so they’d be in top form for the race.

When the big event came, around noon at the neighborhood picnic, we’d carefully place each turtle under the bushel basket “starting gate” at the center of a roped-off circle. We’d whisper some final words of encouragement, then step back behind the rope circle to cheer our turtle on. Most turtles snoozed through the race, but each year produced a winner—at least one turtle valiantly lumbered toward his/her former remembered home in the tomato patch.   

The year my new husband and I moved from a series of urban environments to Vermont in a somewhat misguided attempt to “return to the land,” I became a part-time adult gardener. We purchased a small house on a wedge-shaped lot in the state’s capital city, Montpelier. Because we moved in November, it was a half year or so before I could put seeds into the ground. I did start some tomatoes indoors—local lore suggested beginning seedlings on “town meeting day,” a set date in March when all Vermont’s towns held local meetings. My seedlings were anemic and spindly. Later, once the danger of frost was mostly past, I replaced my homegrown efforts with hardier young plants from the local garden shop.  

In Vermont, I was able to grow cool weather crops that did not thrive in Maryland when I was growing up—romaine lettuce, broccoli, and a strange shaped brassica called kohlrabi. When my in-laws paid a visit in late summer, I proudly cooked them some homegrown kohlrabi. Afterwards, I belatedly learned that it was one of my father-in-law’s least favorite vegetables. While living with his mom and siblings on a friend’s Midwestern farm during the waning days of World War I, he’d been fed an overabundance of kohlrabi and had sworn off them for the rest of his life. Kohlrabis look like something out of a sci-fi movie—central orbs with little leafy projections sticking out of them. I was not sorry to have experimented with them. I just needed to remember never to serve them to my father-in-law again. 

Our experiment in Vermont living did not last long enough for me to become a very adept northern gardener, but it did whet my appetite for further garden attempts. Our next move, to Richmond, Virginia, included an initial stint of apartment living that did not foster gardening. However,  when we purchased a house with a yard, I was off to the races. The first chore was removing the growth of wild clematis that had vined its way across the back yard. Next came turning the hard soil and deciding what to plant. Tomatoes for sure. Maybe some corn. Peas, carrots, lettuce, scallions, onions, beans, eggplant, and one year, potatoes. My early harvests rarely made much of a dent in our grocery bill, but digging and hoeing and weeding the garden helped me let off steam, forestalling the escalation of many a family fight.    

Partway through our Richmond stay, I wandered further afield—to sub-Saharan Africa for a two-year stint in a Peace-corps-like program. Our younger son Scott and I lived in half of a small duplex at the edge of the United Nations housing complex in the small city of Bujumbura, Burundi. The climate there was much different from any I’d encountered before. Although day length and temperatures varied only a little during the year, the rainfall changes were stark. From May to September or October, it rarely rained at all. Maybe a brief occasional shower, but basically nothing. People who had vegetable gardens either watered them or arranged for anything to be dormant during this “long dry season.”  A smattering of  planting began in advance of the “short rainy season” that typically ran from late September until mid-December, when there could be a harvest of sorts. A “short dry season” in late December and January allowed us expats from Europe and North America several storm-free weeks in which to fly home for the winter holidays with our non-expat relatives. Then it was time to plant in earnest—the “long rainy season” was when most foodstuffs were grown. Staples like manioc, corn, and beans, plus fodder for the cattle and other ruminants, enough to last through the long dry season until pasturage again became available with the short rains. 

I tried growing beans and peas on trellises outside out kitchen door. They were kind of straggly, but I think we may have gotten a couple of meals’ worth. They certainly did little to replace our need for the town market, where our housekeeper bargained for most of our food. During my two-year stint, I learned a little about the predominantly rural, agrarian economy of Burundi. Population pressures were immense, so a diet based mostly on beans, corn, and manioc made much more sense than the western meat-heavy diet I’d been accustomed to before. 

Once back in Richmond, I refined my techniques. Eventually I was able to produce enough vegetables to reduce the carping from other family members about my “less-than-minimum-wage” work. 

“Besides,” I told them, “it’s a lot cheaper than psychotherapy.”  

Then, about the time the younger generation was ready to fly the nest, we moved to a larger house with a huge yard containing a level, sunny spot just perfect for gardening. Over time, I got better at outwitting the bunnies and squirrels. We eventually had lettuces, onions, tomatoes, squash, broccoli, asparagus, and a little corn. One year I experimented with popcorn—fun, but not all that practical, given the cheaply available store brands. 

The year we put the house up for sale, I went all out in spring planting. Maybe the well-ordered rows of lettuce, scallions and spinach encouraged the eventual buyers, who were also avid gardeners. The following year, my empty-nester husband and I lived in a northwestern Chinese desert. I tried windowsill gardening. Basil grew well with some pampering and watering. Our several other jaunts in China were either too brief or too busy to allow for a real garden. However, I reveled in the variety of produce available in the “garden province”  of Sichuan, where I spent over a year in total during the course of the next five years. 

Now I live in southern California, a climate best described in an earlier environmental book as a “Cadillac desert.” We have long, long dry seasons. If we are lucky, we get enough cool weather rains to green the hills a bit in January and February. I heard recently that some early fall rains this year had been unexpectedly generous, filling some of our parched reservoirs from a third to nearly half full. Still, not enough moisture to break a lingering multi-year drought. I’m studying rainwater harvesting, drip irrigation, mulching, and other water conservation techniques. Learning to live in harmony with this climate will make for an interesting, challenging gardening year.   

The Weather of Mysteries, the Mysteries of Weather

I grew up on mysteries, both televised and in book form. Though I mostly ignored the Nancy Drew series (part of every preteen girl’s book shelf?), by the time I finished high school, I’d been steeped in Agatha Christie and Erle Stanley Gardner. I had vague images of the little English village where Miss Jane Marple solved murders. The Orient Express and a tour boat on the Nile seemed exotic and thrilling places for sleuth Hercule Poirot to twirl his mustache and exercise his little gray cells. Though I didn’t expect Perry Mason ever to lose a case, I enjoyed weekly TV evenings watching Mason and prosecutor Hamilton Burger match wits in courtroom dramas.  

Once I left my family home and moved around the country and overseas, my personal library went through several changes.  Lately, it’s been downsized, but I’m still within range of a public or university library. I’ve consistently gravitated toward the mystery section. Over time, my tastes have evolved. I’ve concentrated more often on women novelists who feature women protagonists and who define their settings in meticulous detail, often including the weather. 

At the suggestion of a friend, I began reading the Susan Wittig Albert series about the fictional Texas hill town of Pecan Springs. Her “cozy mystery” part-time detective and full-time herb and plant store owner/operator China Bayles tapped into a love of landscape that had been dormant in me for a while.   

Not long after I moved to North Carolina in 2007, I came across a holiday story by local author Margaret Maron. Before long, I’d read everything I could find by this self-taught writer, whose fictional East Carolina milieu of Colleton County, presided over by bootlegger’s daughter Judge Deborah Knott, sometimes seemed intriguingly, uncomfortably real. I especially remember Storm Track, a 2000 murder mystery with an Atlantic hurricane built into the plot. 

Now I’m a recent transplant to southern California, trying to find my way in this semi-desert climate partially filled with retirees like me. No hurricanes here. Muted seasonal changes so far. (Luckily) no significant earthquakes since our move. The other bane of this area is wildfires. Locals with longer pedigrees than mine have told me scary stories of past area fires and evacuations. This year’s outbreaks have already set records for size and ferocity.  Therefore, I was only a little surprised when a summer library visit produced a wildfire mystery, Martha C. Lawrence’s Ashes of Aries. The plot was a tad out of my usual range, but the description of a Rancho Santa Fe neighborhood in flames was almost too vivid. 

Lately lots of pundits have spent lots of print and air time expounding on a changing climate that is likely to include an increase in drastic weather events, some unpredicted.  I’ve found a blog post, but not yet an Albert novel about the great freeze-up of February, 2021, when much of Texas discovered the limited reliability of its electric grid under winter stress. I’m sure there are other novels with wildfires, others with hurricanes. Our reality may be approaching or exceeding the weather limits of popular mystery fiction. 

It seems as if the strides made in the past century or so toward being able to predict weather more consistently and reliably are getting undercut. Hurricane predictors talk about “rapid intensification.” States and regions in the U.S. West declare drought emergencies. They try to evolve contingency water resource plans on the fly. Wells run dry. Power grids fail or are shut down to reduce the chance of spark-ignited wildfires.  

It makes sense for those of us who can to get more serious about resource conservation. Per author Jonathan Safran Foer, in his recent non-fiction book We are the Weather, our personal choices do have an impact: we need to eat less meat, do less driving, travel less by air, have fewer children. For me, the child part is over and done, but I’m working on the remaining three issues. 

Once, in the few months I’ve lived in San Diego, I experienced an unexpected dividend of our less predictable weather: a brief but intense rainbow.   

On Being Undocumented, Uncomfortable, and Racist

Last month I moved from central North Carolina to southern California. I was fortunate to be able to move by choice. Still, moving always poses challenges. Now most of my extended family is in a different time zone from me. Connections from my old location have been broken. We don’t have enough chairs. I don’t have automated payment accounts for local utilities. I don’t have a local doctor, dentist, or even a health care plan. I don’t know any of the local bakeries, take-out joints or restaurants. A good bit of the time, I feel lost. One of the most disorienting aspects of my “new life” is being relatively undocumented—no local driver’s license, no local bank, no supermarket chain I recognize, no voter ID, no links to local media channels. My challenges are minor, but I SO want my current uncertainty to end!  

In my old location, I’d counted myself a white liberal. I thought I’d worked through issues surrounding whiteness in 21st century America. I’d participated in marches and protests, listened to Rev. William Barber’s impassioned, informative speeches about racial inequities, given money and time to progressive causes. In my new location, many people around me speak other languages instead of or in addition to English. I feel vaguely threatened. 

A few days ago, I got a packet of forwarded mail containing monthly magazines with articles examining U.S. historical racism and still unresolved racial and ethnic tensions. One article described the “race card project” started by journalist Michele Norris in 2010. She’d initially asked 200 people to send her their thoughts about race, distilled into just six words (theracecardproject.com). A real challenge for somebody as wordy as I am! What popped into my head was succinct, embarrassing, and accurate: “I thought I owned the place.”  

In school in the 1950’s I’d been taught that European settlers had “conquered the wilderness,” “shown pioneer spirit,” “plowed the prairie,” “expanded the frontier,” “defeated the savage Indians,” “fulfilled manifest destiny,” etc., etc.  Once I began to read and travel more widely, I learned some limits of this Eurocentric viewpoint.

In my new home, adding to my disorientation is discomfort at having to further relinquish my former historical narrative. The version of U.S. history and growth I still partially carry around inside me has been at best incomplete, at worst, deliberately falsified. For thousands of years before the earliest European explorers came to North America, indigenous people lived in what is now the United States. Much of the hard manual labor to create the agricultural and industrial economies of our country was done either by enslaved Africans or by poorly paid Chinese and other Asians. Currently, much agricultural and caregiving work is done by low-paid latino/latina immigrants. I now live on land stolen from indigenous tribespeople.

Some of my ancestors were slaveholders. Even the majority, those who didn’t directly benefit from slavery or subsequent Jim Crow laws, had access to financial support and government programs that were effectively, if not officially, racially biased. Being “racist” applies not just to members of the KKK or white people who use the “N” word or anyone who makes disparaging remarks about “those people.” A racist can be someone of any background (though in the U.S. usually white) who benefits explicitly or implicitly from a system of arbitrary advantage. That includes me. 

The people in line with me at the DMV yesterday came in all shapes, colors, and sizes, spoke with lots of different accents. Many DMV employees could speak two languages or even more. Might I have to own up to my lingering biases, to adapt and participate in a more diverse culture here? 

What I’m experiencing mimics some stages of grieving laid out in earlier research on death and dying: 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression and 5) acceptance. I seem partly to be cycling through the first four stages of grieving, grieving the death of the myth of white supremacy:

1) Who, me, a racist? 2) How dare you! 3) Look, I can show you my NAACP card. 4) I will never get this right.  

Many of my background may be experiencing grief stages as well. If we are ever to coalesce as a fully multi-ethnic society, we’ll have to reject the myth of dominance, white or otherwise. We’ll have to temper our denial, anger, bargaining, or depression. Instead, whoever we are, whatever our backgrounds, we’ll need to more fully accept and embrace the humor, resilience, and graciousness that are also part of the human heritage.    

Goodwill

Goodwill    —by Jinny Batterson

In business dealings,
Intangible assets in excess of
The value of bricks and mortar,
In Christmas carols,
What the angels sing of
At the birth of Jesus.

In this conflicted age,
An improbable hope that
Something good will emerge
From this global pandemic:
Our acknowledgment that
Human life is uncertain
And that all life is connected.

 

 

Using Tools Wisely

Using Tools Wisely  —by Jinny Batterson

My parents, long dead now, got most of their early schooling in relatively sparse classrooms. My dad attended grades one through seven in a two-room schoolhouse that was still standing, if derelict, when I was a child. On one of our Sunday afternoon rambles in the family station wagon, we stopped to see it. The wooden structure, built on raised posts, was set in a grove of trees at the edge of a small country road. Its door had a padlock, but, with a boost from Dad, we could look in through a couple of windows whose glass had long been missing. Only a few benches remained inside. Gone was the blackboard where Dad said students had practiced their sums and letters. Near the center of the structure on the floor was a metal platform. Dad explained that the platform had partially protected the rest of the structure from the potbellied stove (now also gone) that had provided the school’s only heat. Feeding wood into the stove had been a job reserved for the teacher or for responsible older students, since errors could result in either too little heat or a bad fire.

Much of what our parents shared with us from their early schooling were poems or essays they remembered having read in their texts all those years ago. The memorization tasks they set for us may have been a partial 1950’s equivalent to some of today’s at home “virtual learning.” They’d ask us to learn, then recite from memory, some of their favorite poems, like Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” about Mudville’s baseball team and its famed but ill-fated slugger. Somewhat more somberly, they introduced us to the Klondike gold rush via Robert W. Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

The old schoolhouse selection that has come back to me most often lately, though, is an adaption of Charles Lamb’s “A Dissertation on Roast Pig.” The adapted essay was likely an entry in one of the “graded readers” that both my dad and my mom learned from.  (A Gutenberg project link to Charles Lamb’s entire essay can be found at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43566/43566-h/43566-h.htm. )

According to Lamb’s account, likely neither true nor fact checked, roast pig first arose as a result of a house fire. A Chinese peasant had left his careless son in charge of the family homestead while he ran some errands. The son accidentally spread some sparks onto a bale of straw that then set the whole house ablaze. The building, a relatively insubstantial hut akin to the straw or stick houses built by the first or second of the “Three Little Pigs,” burned completely to the ground. Poking around amid the rubble, the son noticed a delicious aroma, and eventually determined that it was coming from the skin and flesh of a piglet, one of several who had been unfortunate collateral damage in the fire. After he tasted it, the son wolfed down the rest of the scorched creature. By the time his father arrived back on the scene, he’d started to devour a second piglet. The son avoided punishment by introducing his father to the roast delicacy—a huge improvement on the raw meat, grains, and vegetables that had previously made up the peasants’ diet. It took a while before the peasantry adjusted their practices so that roast pigs could be obtained without pyromania. Taming fire, using it wisely, was and is an ongoing effort.  

You can likely see where I’m going with this. Our burgeoning online environment has spawned some of the same excesses as the pyromania that, per Lamb’s essay, originally attended roast pigs. We hear almost daily about “tweet storms” and various distortions, half-truths, conspiracy theories and blatant lies circulating on the internet. The “world wide web” has proved to be a hugely important adjunct to many of our former ways of communicating, but it is susceptible to abuses that, unchecked, can burn down more than houses. Can we in time figure out ways to enjoy our virtual “roast pigs” more safely and wisely?    

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.   

 

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