Category Archives: travel

Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease

Racism: A Chronic Spiritual Wasting Disease    —by Jinny Batterson

The mostly “white” religious congregation I’m part of in Raleigh, North Carolina has lately become more visibly concerned with reducing racism. Our local intensification started amid a national denominational crisis about discrimination in hiring practices. It increased after a 2017 murder at a Charlottesville, Virginia “unite the right” rally.  Our renewed efforts to grapple with racism (and other related isms) is a positive step. During 2018-2019, we’ve slightly adapted the workshop curriculum “Living the Pledge” and held multiple sessions for congregational leaders and members. Over the course of these workshops, those of us privileged to be “white” have gotten a more complete understanding of our unfair advantages, based on centuries of overt chattel slavery and then at least another century’s add-on of explicit and implicit discrimination against “non-whites.”  During a particularly intense role play, it dawned on me how unlikely it would be for me to fully shed my “whiteness.” Despite my best efforts, my earlier conditioning, sometimes unconscious, could continue to trip me up sometimes. Racism, I came to believe, was not an acute condition that could be cured with a good dose of anti-racism training. Rather it was a chronic spiritual illness requiring lifetimes of work to reduce and eventually eliminate its damage. 

In addition to the workshop materials, I studied on my own—a frequent recourse among highly formally educated Unitarian-Universalists. By the time I tiptoed into it, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me had spent over a year and a half on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. His epistolary account of growing up as a “black” male in Baltimore reminded me of 1950’s childhood outings to eat and shop in what was then predominantly “white” West Baltimore, before fear-based real estate block-busting changed the complexion and economic resources of the neighborhood. I immersed myself in Michelle Obama’s Becoming, getting a “black” woman’s perspective on similar changes in the southside Chicago neighborhood that helped form her. I read a confessional analysis of the holdovers of “slaveholder religion” by “white” North Carolina-based pastor Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In his 2018 book, Reconstructing the Gospel, Wilson-Hartgrove explains how a skewed interpretation of the Christian gospels can continue to favor “whiteness.”

During an early spring 2019 trip, I had a chance to visit the museum and monument in Montgomery, Alabama, created by the Equal Justice Initiative to dramatize the connecting threads of racial violence through slavery and the period of terror-based lynchings to current mass incarceration. Recently I viewed the film The Best of Enemies, chronicling a cross-racial friendship forged during a two-week period of skillfully facilitated community discussions and soul-searching about school integration in neighboring Durham, North Carolina in 1971.    

Once we’ve studied, though, what do we do differently from what has come before? How do we learn to treat each person as an individual with “inherent worth and dignity,” as stated in our denomination’s basic documents?  How do we work toward dismantling institutional racism? How do us “whites” get beyond “white guilt” to become more effective in the struggle?  A clue came from a “white” woman activist who’s become a late-life hero of mine, “subversive Southerner” Anne Braden.  In an interview at her namesake education center in Louisville, Kentucky when she was in her late 70’s, Braden was clear and succinct: 

“I don’t think guilt is a productive emotion. I never knew anybody who really got active because of guilt. Now there’s plenty for white people to feel guilty about but they’ll sit around and they’ll feel guilty then they’ll go hear a real militant black speaker beat them over the head for an hour and go home and think they’ve done something and not do anything for a year. I’ve never seen it move anybody. I think what everybody white that I know has gotten involved in the struggle got into it because they glimpsed a different world to live in. The meaning of life is in that struggle, that human beings have always been able to envision something better.”

Racism is a chronic spiritual waste. Part of the work of  religious community is to harness the spirit to work persistently to reduce such waste, helping build the beloved community.

 

How Have We Come So Far on Earth? (50th)

Were we ever that young?

How Have We Come So Far on Earth?  (50th)   —by Jinny Batterson

(Many years ago, we started the custom of a poem on our wedding anniversary. The poetry hasn’t improved all that much; the marriage has somehow endured…)

In retrospect, so much can seem inevitable:
The ungainly bag of holly and pine boughs,
The welcoming seat at the front of the bus,
The
glib blond guy with the Paul Bunyan
Glasses frames. The letter to “Jennifer”
Wit
h the correct postal address at my dorm.

The college-based courtship. That magic
Summer in Montreal. The horses across
The fence our first dew-drenched dawn
Alon
g the road east toward the Gaspé.
Our newlyweds’ apartment near Hopkins,
The night we watched the progress
Of 
pedestrians first dodging, then
Accepting the thunderstorm’s drenching.

Trying to make the Nearings’ rural dream our
Own, though rank novices in needed skills.
Buying
a lakeside cabin at a divorce-sale
Price. Uprooting to northern Virginia and
A
hellish teaching term. Stitching ourselves
Back together while riding Fred the red pickup
Along
the mighty Mississippi to New Orleans.

Two children born of love and post-Watergate
Fervor. 
 The friendly Richmond neighbors who
Salved the silly white liberals aiming to
Dismantle racism double-handedly.
The
Servas adventures, both as hosts and
As travelers. The travails of drug-infested inner
City
living. The trophy house and garden.
The long-term live-ins: Chinese, then Japanese.

The mid-life lump, the reconfiguring of later priorities:
Less career focus, more service, more travel.
China
tourism, China teaching, China by plane, by bus,
By rail, by camel, by motorcycle, by bamboo raft.
Wondering
at scenery, food, sometimes strange
Similarities with America. The sooner-than-expected
Grandchild. Relocating to
North Carolina just
In time for its next slide into regressive politics.
The
Wenchuan earthquake, beginnings of recovery.

Reaching our milestone three score and ten with
Most body parts still functional, grieving for those who’ve
Already
departed the planet. Scant chance we’ll have
Another fifty years, but determination to treasure the
Highs
and lows of the together times that remain.

Happy anniversary to the accidental/inevitable
Love of my life.   Love, Jinny

Hal Crowther’s Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers and Old School Ties

Hal Crowther’s Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers and Old School Ties
–by Jinny Batterson

When, about a decade ago, I entered semi-retirement and moved from Richmond, Virginia to central North Carolina, I vowed to do better than in my preceding move (from rural Vermont to urban Virginia) at initially learning about my new locale. The Old North State might not be all that different from the Old Dominion, but I decided to make a more proactive effort to learn about it. It seems to me that our loosely-rooted culture loses something by our tenuous connections to various places we never quite call “home.”  What had made North Carolina the way it was, I wondered?  What might it become in the future? In a larger context, what was the gist of this mysterious, often self-contradictory region called “the South” where I’d lived most of my adult life? 

Works I found helpful early on were Rob Christensen’s The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, and William S. Powell’s North Carolina: A History. More recently, as an acknowledged import, I was pleased to find a copy of Hal Crowther’s 2018 collection Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers: A Gallery of Memorable Southerners. During the 1990’s, I’d read some of Crowther’s hard-hitting editorial commentary in Richmond’s alternative weekly. He currently lambasts our foibles and praises our better angels from a home base in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Freedom Fighters adapts and expands on earlier sketches to profile 19 movers and shakers of Southern culture, starting with Texas journalist/writer Molly Ivins and finishing with North Carolina blind guitarist Doc Watson. Most of those profiled were born during the first half of the twentieth century and lived into the first decade of the twenty-first. Some were born outside the South but concentrated their activities in the region, others were raised southern and later moved elsewhere. Given the time span of Crowther’s profiles, it’s not surprising that the majority were white men. At least seven of the freedom fighters and/or hell raisers spent their most active years in North Carolina.

Among the journalists, musicians, artists, politicians and activists that Crowther spirits off the page and into our consciousness are two former Crowther acquaintances from his undergraduate days at Williams College, a liberal arts college in western Massachusetts that was all male when he attended in the 1960’s. Kirk Varnedoe, a Savannah-bred member of the class of 1967, became an expert on painting and sculpture and was for over a decade chief curator at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. James R. “Jesse” Winchester, Jr., bred in northern Mississippi and member of the class of 1966, spent most of his adult life in Canada after leaving the U.S. rather than participate in the military during U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Granted amnesty in 1977, he eventually moved back to the U.S. south in 2002. Though he never became as famous as some song-writing contemporaries, his songs have been covered by artists including Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, the Everly Brothers, and Emmylou Harris.

Just after the entry for Jesse Winchester was a paean to one of the four women profiled—Anne McCarty Braden, someone I had read briefly about in a decades-old alumnae magazine from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now co-educational Randolph College). Anne was profiled at length in the 2003 biography Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South (https://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=1592#.XGxXpJNKhdg). An English major in the class of 1945, Anne later became a civil rights activist of long standing in Louisville, Kentucky. In the spring of 1954, Anne and her husband Carl purchased a house in a Louisville suburb as stand-ins for a black family who would not have been considered as buyers in the heavily segregated housing market of the times. For their efforts, the Bradens received death threats. Carl was tried for “sedition” and spent months in jail before his conviction was overturned. For most of her adult life, this “embarrassing woman” was vilified and/or ignored by the establishment of her time and place. After Carl’s death when Anne was 50, she continued for three more decades tirelessly advocating for civil and human rights. The Randolph College web entries for notable alums fail to mention Anne, but I hope that a little of her fearlessness and dedication to advancing human dignity will rub off on those of us who’ve come after her at the school.         

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street   —by Jinny Batterson   

corner of Walnut and Walker            

The first time I remember participating in an autumn ritual of gathering black walnuts (juglans nigra), I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My dad, a small-scale residential building contractor in Maryland’s burgeoning suburbs, would notice, as he traveled from one building site to another, where there were black walnut trees growing along the sides of still-rural roads. He’d make mental notes of the most likely candidates for a bountiful fall harvest. Then, one crisp Sunday afternoon in October or early November, he’d load Mom, me, and my younger brothers and sister, along with some buckets or bushel baskets, into the family station wagon. He’d drive us all to that year’s designated walnut gathering site.

We kids learned to be careful picking up the nuts. If the outer hulls were the least bit bruised, they could ooze a sticky sap onto our hands, turning them walnut brown. Once we’d either filled our buckets/baskets or run out of easily accessible nuts, we’d all pile back into the station wagon and return home.

The next challenge was to find a good way to remove the nuts’ outer hulls, then to keep the partially processed nuts secure from local squirrels until it was time to finish the nut cracking process. Dad tried various mesh screens, or running over the walnuts with the car, or storing the unhulled nuts loose in a shed in the back yard while their outer hulls dried, then husking them like corn. No solution was perfect, but by Christmas we typically had enough partially hulled nuts left to shell out a supply of nutmeats for flavoring cakes and Christmas cookies. Black walnuts’ inner shells are hard. It took a lot of effort with a hammer and a nut pick to get the meats from their shells. We nearly always missed a few choice morsels that were just too difficult to pry out. The flavor of black walnuts in carrot cake or oatmeal-raisin cookies, though, was worth the extra work.        

For a lot of years after I left Maryland, I lived where black walnut trees were scarce. Then one autumn as I was wandering in a suburban park near the central North Carolina condo where I now live, I spied a black walnut tree with nuts on the ground around it. A brief errand back to the condo to get a bucket and some gloves equipped me for suburban foraging. That year’s crop was bountiful enough for both me and the squirrels. My after-harvest squirrel protection measures worked well. The resulting carrot cake was wonderful. For several years afterward, I found enough nuts in this park along aptly named Walnut Street to share with the squirrels and still have my carrot cake.   

Walnut trees, it turns out, do not thrive in deep shade. They need a certain amount of sunlight to achieve their maximum potential, hence their prevalence along roadway edges, in open areas, or in abandoned fields. They are a tree that “does not play well with others”—they produce a substance, jugione, that inhibits the growth of other trees and shrubs in their vicinity. However, their nuts and their wood are both valuable. They also appear on several top-ten lists of temperate region trees which absorb the most CO2, helping mitigate climate change. 

“tree protection area” near major new construction project

This year, the suburban park tree of my past harvests is inaccessible—stretching skyward behind fencing near a new library/parking complex. Though it stands in a “tree protection zone,” I’m not sure if it will survive the construction disruption. Habitat loss is not the only challenge for black walnuts. In the U.S. west, a fungal pest has been decimating walnut groves there. The disease has recently been discovered in Tennessee. If it spreads widely, walnuts may eventually suffer the sorts of die-offs that previously wiped out elms and chestnuts.

We need our trees, especially our mature specimens. Please send thoughts, prayers, and good tree karma to North Carolina’s remaining black walnut trees. While you’re at it, please pay attention to other instances of environmental neglect with potentially awful consequences for us proud, stubborn humans. A recent short clip, “Gone in a Generation”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/gone-in-a-generation/?utm_term=.7d70420d76b8, tells the story rather starkly.    

Experiments in Car-Less Living

Experiments in Car-less Living    —by Jinny Batterson

My body periodically tells me it’s no longer young or limber—creaky knees, back twinges, huffing up hills, diminished stamina, hearing difficulties, memory lapses.

The biggest problem is my eyes. Most of my life I’ve been nearsighted, my vision corrected with either glasses or contact lenses. Unfortunately, my aging orbs have recently developed both glaucoma (probably an inherited trait) and cataracts. The glaucoma, caught early, has done minimal harm, with further damage slowed or stopped by medication. The cataracts will sooner or later require corrective surgery. In the meantime, my night vision is declining. I try to avoid driving after dark. For those evening events I really don’t want to miss, I do my best to catch rides.

Last weekend I traveled out of town to my previous hometown of Richmond, VA. During this midwinter solo getaway, I’d visit with former classmates and friends, touch base with my financial advisor, attend a couple of public events. The trip could be a more extended experiment in getting along without a car. I’d made a provisional plan:

1) Get my accommodating husband to drive me and my luggage to the train station, then take the Friday morning train north from Raleigh, NC.

2) Get a former college suite mate to pick me up at the Richmond station and shepherd me around to that day’s activities, then drop me at the suburban hotel I’d booked near my other weekend events.

3) Line up two other friends who lived near the hotel to be my companion/chauffeur, one each for the two other weekend days, with my “Sunday driver” depositing me back at the Richmond train station in time for the mid-afternoon southbound train.

4) Phone hubby and have him pick me and my luggage back up in Raleigh.

The start of the plan worked well—hubby complained only slightly about getting up early enough to drive me to the train station; the train, though slightly late, was very comfortable; my classmate met me promptly at the Richmond station; we shared a leisurely restaurant lunch nearby and began catching up on our respective lives. She then drove me to my Friday afternoon appointment downtown. I wasn’t sure how long it would last. My friend assured me she’d be available for further ferrying duties—just phone her once I was done. After she deposited me at the appropriate high-rise office building, she drove off westward to share babysitting chores with her husband, spending some quality time with their most recent grand baby.

The meeting was briefer than I’d expected, so I decided to experiment with the new high-speed bus that ran from the downtown area west to a shopping center near where my friend and her husband were babysitting. That way, I figured, I’d save her from coping with downtown traffic plus have my own little adventure with public transportation.

The infrastructure of the new bus line was impressive: a dedicated bus lane, ramps to raised bus stops imbedded in the median of a major east-west street, automated ticket kiosks. The first kiosk I came to was out of order. I asked a woman waiting for the next bus where I could get a ticket headed west.

“Maybe the machine at the next stop is working,” she told me, “but it’s quite a ways.”   

Turns out one of the design changes for the new line increased the distance between stops. I walked about half a mile, got a ticket, then waited fifteen minutes for the next bus. Overall, the five mile trek to the shopping center took me more than an hour. Not a huge problem for me. Potentially hard on someone with a tighter schedule and/or mobility problems.

After my “Friday chauffeur” had picked me up at the shopping center, we’d caught up more over coffee, and she’d deposited me at my hotel, I got a plaintive phone call from Saturday’s ride. She’d broken a bone. She was in pain, with her arm in a sling. She was temporarily in no shape to drive.

Due to my friend’s injury, my Saturday logistics would be more complicated. Luckily, I’d installed an app on my phone for one of the ride-sharing services that’s recently sprung up in some American cities. An exploratory check for potential rides turned up multiple possibilities. My scaled back Saturday itinerary could be satisfied using a combination of public bus, walking, and Lyft. On Saturday morning, the hotel front desk directed me to a nearby bus stop; my first errand was just over a mile away along the bus line; a return walk to the hotel was doable, though there were gaps in the sidewalk on a busy street. In the afternoon, Lyft rides to and from my event were less expensive than I’d feared. I found a supper restaurant an easy walk from the hotel. My Sunday ride was healthy and punctual. Needing her chauffeuring was a good excuse to catch up. Hubby picked me and my luggage up with minimal griping.   

My aging eyes have got me thinking about our society’s over-dependence on private automobiles. If I’d previously listened to the frustrations of car-less friends and acquaintances with a mixture of pity and amusement, my turn for similar frustrations might arrive sooner than expected. I’m still lucky—I can afford and access alternatives. People with limited economic means can rarely afford a car, for-fee ride-sharing, or extensive public transit. In rural areas, suitable transit isn’t often available. This morning I awoke to a cold snap that had made outdoor temperatures so frigid that in some northern areas, schools and offices were closed, and even the U.S. postal service had temporarily halted deliveries.

An aging population, income disparities, geographic sprawl,  and climate change will severely stress a society accustomed to hopping in the car for every errand and need. Public transportation in the area where I live is spotty, but I’m going to learn more about riding the bus (https://gotriangle.org/how-ride-bus), using ride sharing services, and occasionally engaging a customized pick-up service our town provides. What are your options? 

Pandas Playing Mahjongg–Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival

Pandas Playing Mahjongg, Enjoying the Cary Chinese Lantern Festival 

                                                        —by Jinny Batterson

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Panda Land 2019

For the past several years, a traveling exhibit of LED-lit silk-skinned “lanterns” has come to our North Carolina town during the darkest period of winter. Last year on the night I attended the festival, the air was bitingly cold. Crowds were sparse. This year, on a clear weekend evening a good bit warmer than typical for early January, I ate an early supper, then put on a hoodie, drove to the festival site, parked in a free adjacent lot, and walked to the box office to get a ticket. I arrived a little after the festival’s 6 p.m. opening—once the sky was dark enough to provide a good backdrop for the thousands of lanterns and fanciful lit shapes.

I’d assumed that by arriving early, I’d “beat the crowds” and minimize my wait time to purchase tickets (cheaper at the gate than by internet) and then gain entry to the exhibit space. The wait wasn’t too long—maybe twenty minutes in all–but it turned out I’d arrived at the height of that evening’s viewing hours for multi-generational families. Rather than come later in the evening, they were enjoying the spectacle before youngsters’ bedtimes, at the same time taking advantage of reduced or free entry for young children.

The star of the show, a huge brightly lit dragon, again stretched along the shallows of Symphony Lake for a couple hundred feet. It was even larger and more intricate than last year’s dragon.  A few of the other exhibits were similar to what I’d seen previously, but arranged differently and with different emphasis.  New features had been added, too, including a set of large lantern “drums” near the entrance, with a real drum that kids could pound on to make the lights glow brighter.

Cary Chinese Lantern Festival Drums

My favorite set of lanterns was “panda land.” I’d previously spent time in China in the region where pandas are native. This exhibit featured stylized panda figures in human poses—riding a bicycle or, my absolute top pick, playing the Chinese tiled game of mahjongg, a sort of cross between dominoes and the card game spades.  Periodically, performers on the festival stage did acrobatics or Chinese dances—I watched briefly, then went back to the pandas. This year’s lantern festival is nearly over. The weather for remaining evenings is predicted to be less pleasant than the evening I went.

If you live locally, I’d encourage you to go if you can. Too often these days our airwaves are full of insults, ricocheting threats, and fear mongering. Against this background, an outdoor stroll alongside others speaking many languages, all of us watching the whimsical uses we can make of our technologies when we’re not busy fussing with each other, is, dare I say it, priceless.     

Old Years’ Resolutions

Old Years’ Resolutions    —by Jinny Batterson

For many years, I’ve avoided making discrete New Years’ resolutions. I have a tendency to backslide. Eliminating harsh words, taking off five pounds, following an exercise plan—most years such resolutions would get broken by late January if not sooner.  Instead, I’ve tried just setting general directions, somewhat more gently: I’ll bite my tongue a bit more often, eat a little less, exercise a tad more. I’m not sure if those around me even notice. Still, I reason, how can I expect to improve either myself or the world if I spend lots of my time blaming myself and/or making up excuses for broken promises?

Looking forward and setting goals are important, with New Year a frequent milestone for doing so. As I get older, occasionally looking backward seems appropriate, too.  What has gone well in the year just ending? What has gone poorly?

This past year has been good for me. I realized a long-term goal of publishing a travel memoir. I enjoyed generally good health. My husband and I shared several adventurous and rewarding trips. Meanwhile, the world at large has caromed along with perhaps more disasters and more vitriol than in some years. Headlines and blogosphere trend negative.

On the personal front, I think I’ve done a fair job at maintaining a civil tone in interactions with relatives, friends, acquaintances and elected officials across the political spectrum. However, I did send a somewhat snippy letter about varying leadership styles to our congregation’s new minister; I used some harsh words in a couple of the postcards I mailed to our current national leader. Weight control? Not so good—after a December trip that included lots of holiday feasting, any implicit goals about weight loss have fallen short.

What about exercise? There I think I’ve shone. Partway through 2018, after an extended hiking trip in rural France upped my average step count well above 10,000 steps per day, I set a short-term personal goal: Could I keep my annual average above 12,000 daily?  With just a few days to go, I’m tantalizingly close. Today the weather where I live has been pleasant, so getting in steps outdoors (roughly between four and five miles) was easy. Tomorrow and the next day are predicted to be rainy, making outdoor walks less appealing. New Year’s Eve may find me trudging on the treadmill at the gym, or pedaling the second-hand exercise bike at home, or even doing late-evening laps around our small condo as the TV counts down the final hours until midnight. If I’m able to meet this “old year’s resolution,” set not in January but in August, I’ll be pleased. The world at large may still be somewhat dicey, but I’m in better shape.   

Concentrating too hard on “new year” milestones may cause us to miss chances for learnings and goals later in the year or later in life. Looking back through much earlier personal journals, I found a year-end thought from 1982, a year in which unrest in Poland and the continuing cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been much in the news. The U.S. economy was in recession. Britain and Argentina had gone to war over the Falklands, a set of small islands in the South Atlantic. Nevertheless, I wrote then:  “All in all, 1982 has not been a bad year. The world is still teetering on the brink of disaster, as usual, but there’s been a lot of love and beauty, too.”   

May 2019 turn out to be a year in which many personal and broader issues move toward better resolutions, whether made early or later. Happy New Year! 

   

Coping with the Cold

Coping with the Cold   —by Jinny Batterson

If we live in northern latitudes, by now we’ve likely experienced some chilly weather, even if the calendar does not yet officially signal “winter.”  How to cope?  Consider our animal natures, and choose a strategy: 

1) Migrate  (like wild geese) 

2) Hibernate  (like black bears)

3) Congregate (like emperor penguins)

This winter, I expect to employ all three strategies at different times—

heading to parts of Florida, becoming a human “snow bird” at a beach full of sun-seeking Northerners; 

deciding a snow day is a good day to snuggle under as many blankets and quilts as I can pile onto the bed and there’s really no need to get up;

gathering with friends and festive libations for New Years (both Western and Eastern).   

What’s your favorite winter coping style? 

  

Who Did You Expect?

Who Did You Expect?     —by Jinny Batterson

My life so far has been fortunate—no privation, little discrimination, generally good health, many chances for love and adventure.  Much of the time, though not always, people I’ve met have lived up to (or beyond) my expectations. On those rare occasions when someone’s behavior has disappointed me, more cynical or world-weary friends have shrugged at what they regard as my naiveté. 

“Of course so-and-so let you down,” they’ve announced. “What did you expect?”  

Increasingly for me,  the appropriate question is rather “Who (or, for the grammar police, “Whom”) did you expect?”  As I mature (a work in progress), I become more aware of instances when I’ve pre-judged people and turned out to be fairly far off the mark.

The first occasion that stands out is my initial in-person meeting with the leader of our 1980 group tour to China. In those pre-internet days, I’d exchanged postal letters and paperwork with Ms. Baum and talked with her on the phone. Until we both arrived in San Francisco’s airport departure lounge for our trans-Pacific group flight to Hong Kong, I had not actually met this native New Yorker. I’d assumed from her accent and phone demeanor that she was of Jewish background. She seemed somewhat pushy and no-nonsense, ready to take on the world. I was surprised to see that she was African-American, not ethnically Jewish. She could be somewhat pushy and no-nonsense. Her prior experiences as both social worker and travel agent had prepared her well to take on whatever bureaucracy attempted to get in her way, regardless of ethnic origin or nationality. She turned out to be both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.

Earlier this fall, I signed up to work the polls in the 2018 mid-terms. After on-site training, I exchanged emails with the woman who’d be my site supervisor for early voting. Her written English was good, clear and simple. Her family name was a common one, her given name, ending in “a,” suggested to me she might be African-American, or maybe Hispanic-American. When we met, I could detect no skin coloring or hair texture to suggest ancestral links with Africa, no hint of foreign origin in her accent. She seemed at first a very “vanilla,” somewhat conservative American. During our work, she showed her passion for ensuring that anyone who wanted to vote was given maximum opportunities to do so. She’d sit patiently with someone lacking appropriate credentials, or with an address not yet entered into the electoral system database of rapidly growing Wake County. She knew the rules well. She could suggest pulling up an electronic copy of a utility bill on a portable phone. She might advise going home to retrieve a needed ID and then returning later in the day. In rare cases, she’d have the potential voter fill out a provisional ballot, explaining how and when to check whether their vote had been counted. The workforce she’d helped assemble to follow her lead was the most visibly diverse I’ve ever participated in. She was both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.    

I’ve just spent Thanksgiving with parts of my extended family that I barely knew growing up in Maryland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Only once had I had a chance to visit these North Carolina farmer cousins from a rural area near Charlotte. What little I remember from that farm stay involves ponies tame enough so even I was persuaded to take a short ride. I got to see my grandmother’s sister-in-law make glorious biscuits using milk straight from the cows. The cousins closest to my age teased me good-naturedly about my lack of country skills.

After moving to North Carolina a decade ago, I became reacquainted with some of the cousins who’d left the farm to settle in Raleigh. They’d tell me enticing stories of an extended family Thanksgiving gathering at “the shed.” I pictured the locale in my mind: an expanse of gently rolling hills, empty except for a few horses or cows grazing in pastures. “The shed” would be a slightly cleaned-up farm outbuilding. Twenty or so aging cousins of Scots-Irish ancestry would assemble for our midday meal, then say interminable grace before we could eat. Someone would have cooked a turkey and brought it still warm to the feast. We’d eat plentifully, exchange pleasantries, carefully avoid politics, and then everyone would go home.

This year as we drove into the neighborhood nearest our destination, I had trouble reconciling my mental image with current reality. The surrounding area may once have been farmland, but the vicinity had long since become part of suburban Charlotte. A mid-rise apartment complex dominated the nearest street corner. The “shed ” had been expanded and modernized from an earlier role as storage space for some cousins’ plumbing business. It was now a comfortable, well-appointed venue with adjustable seating for up to a couple hundred people. Nearly that many cousins of all ages were in attendance, along with baby equipment, pet dogs and a few footballs.

We did have a short sung grace before the long, snaking buffet line formed. We did generally steer clear of contentious political topics. People caught up on family news since the previous get-together. One 20-something cousin had recently returned from an extended Peace Corps stint in South America; in the next generation up, a househusband described his four years of helping school their daughters while his family was on assignment in southern Europe. One attendee I didn’t get a chance to talk with directly had a skin tone and accent that implied ancestry or origin in India. The Reas still cherished their rural roots and pioneering ancestors, but the clan had gotten more diverse and widely traveled—both different from and similar to the “who’s” I’d expected.

The remaining holidays of late autumn and early winter are likely to have more extended family gatherings and chance meetings. May I remember not to pre-judge those I encounter, to be more careful not to let “who I expect” get in the way of meeting current reality with an open mind and heart. 

Rea Thanksgiving at “the shed”

China Memoir–Launched and Languishing

China Memoir, Launched and Languishing   —by Jinny Batterson

Memoir front cover

In May, 2018, I finished the initial self-publishing process for a memoir of my interest and experiences with mainland China, a book long in the making. Following conventional advice, I hosted a “launch party” for Where the Great Wall Ends at a small local Chinese restaurant, inviting lots of friends and acquaintances. Nearly twenty people showed up, including my primary editor and my book designer. Guests listened politely to my book introduction while munching egg rolls and sipping tea. Several attendees bought copies of the book. Seeing the book actually in print and having people actually purchase it was magical to me. Not quite like birthing a human child, but still a labor of love.

After this initial marketing effort, I pretty much left the book on its own, intermittently sending out a review or gift copy, hoping for a referral or two. Sales have dribbled in. I donated multiple copies to our local public library system. Some have gotten checked out. Recently I put up a very basic book version on Kindle, though my knowledge of Kindle formatting conventions is rudimentary. The preview on my non-Kindle laptop had lots of extraneous editing marks and some formatting glitches at the ends of several chapters, but the Kindle price is less than half that of the print version.    

As this year’s holiday gift-giving season approaches, I’m sending out an appeal for additional readers and/or purchasers. The promise of untold wealth from royalty payments was not part of my motivation for writing the book, but I would like to reach a wider audience than what has materialized so far. Whatever our China experiences or political persuasions, I believe it’s important to make some efforts to understand this big, diverse country, including its long history and its natural environment. China occupies many of the same latitudes in the northern hemisphere as the United States; its land area is roughly the same size. Its culture, geography, and resources are quite different from those of the U.S. Of course my perspective is limited, but I’ve had nearly forty years of intermittent tourism, travel, and teaching in many parts of China to draw on as I crafted my narrative. 

If you have a China-interested or China-background relative or friend, please consider Where the Great Wall Ends as a possible gift. If your monetary resources are limited, please consider checking out a copy from a Wake County, NC library branch, or, if living elsewhere, requesting a copy via interlibrary loan.  Very best wishes for the upcoming holiday season, whatever your background or traditions, and many thanks for your interest.