Category Archives: travel

The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico

The Other One Percent: Puerto Rico     —by Jinny Batterson

Like many mainland Americans, I’ve been watching a fair amount of television reporting these days about the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Puerto Rico in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria. Nearly all the island’s electric, transportation, and communications infrastructure was decimated by the back-to-back hurricanes. Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, and pummeled the island only thirteen days after a lesser blow from Irma had disrupted power for up to a million residents. 

The news coverage sent me to the Internet to try to get some additional background on factors that contributed to this disaster impacting the estimated 3.4 million Puerto Ricans—about 1% of the total U.S. population.

Of course, the immediate causes are the hurricanes themselves—two of the most powerful storms ever seen over land. But there is also a backstory of decades of neglect, indifference, and discrimination that contributed. It seems somewhat cruel in the current circumstances to note that 2017 marks the centennial of Puerto Ricans’ American citizenship—on March 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, establishing limited U.S. citizenship for all islanders born during or after 1898, when the island was acquired by the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.

At the time of the U.S. takeover, Puerto Rico was primarily an agricultural economy. Its principal exports were coffee and sugar. That began to change after World War II. In 1950, the U.S. initiated an “operation bootstrap” program to encourage industrialization and economic growth, and for a while the economy boomed.  Puerto Rico’s economy began a long-term decline in the late 1990’s after a change in the U.S. tax code phased out a provision that had allowed mainland-based companies to avoid corporate taxes on profits made in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico. During the decade of 1996-2006, as the phase-out program took effect, manufacturing jobs declined from about 160,000 to about 110,000. More and more Puerto Ricans left for the mainland, where job prospects might be better. By 2016, over 4.6 million Puerto Ricans resided on the mainland, with the greatest concentrations in metropolitan New York City and in Florida.     

Politically, Puerto Rico chafed under near-colonial rule that seesawed between periods of development support by mainland politicians and periods of repression. Successive votes by islanders to change their status generally supported some variation of the status quo until 2012, when a majority of islanders voted to become a state. The referendum was controversial—opponents had tried to get people to abstain from voting altogether and later argued that the vote was invalid.

Once immediate crises ease and redevelopment plans begin to be developed, it might be wise to consult extensively with this “other 1%” to learn what Puerto Ricans, those with the most at stake, want their still-proud island to become.    

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Cycling Toward Resilience

Cycling Toward Resilience    —by Jinny Batterson

bicycling for fun–Jinny fords a small stream in New Zealand

September 22, 2017, according to my wall calendar, marks this year’s equinox, ushering in autumn in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern. It’s the day when the sun’s arc passes directly over the earth’s equator, when day and night are of nearly equal length. It would seem to indicate a sort of balance. For many of us, balance right now is in somewhat short supply.

Broadcast news these days carries stories and images of catastrophic damage to the U.S. Southeast and American territories in the Caribbean from three different hurricanes so far this season. Parts of Texas and Florida, all of Puerto Rico and most of the U.S. Virgin Islands may never again be the same after Harvey, Irma, and Maria. And hurricane season isn’t even over yet. Meanwhile, swaths of eastern North Carolina have yet to recover from last year’s Hurricane Matthew damage. Parts of New Orleans have atrophied since Katrina’s 2005 onslaught. Five years after superstorm Sandy, houses in New York and New Jersey are still boarded up.

Locally, our town is balancing on the cusp of another municipal election, with multiple candidates in each race this time around. Last night I attended a candidate’s forum co-sponsored by  several non-partisan volunteer groups. The crowd was standing room only, the tone civil, the questions and answers thoughtful and generally restrained—no promises to hold the line on taxes, no shirking from admissions that both infrastructure and population in our community are aging, that revenues since the 2008 recession have not kept up with population growth, that we face challenges.  A couple of incumbents emphasized the need to move away from our current high dependence on private vehicles toward a greater use of walking, cycling, and public transit. 

So I got to thinking about bicycles. A pre-hurricane posting to a San Juan, Puerto Rico website extolled the pleasures of bicycling on recently completed trails around that city. One post-hurricane-Maria clip of the initial stirrings of movement in Puerto Rico showed a few bicycles pedaling the still-watery streets among the cars, trucks, and earthmoving machines. 

Bicycles are an efficient means of transportation, especially in relatively flat terrain. Per an Exploratorium website: “In fact cycling is more efficient than any other method of travel–including walking! The one billion bicycles in the world are a testament to its effectiveness.” (see https://www.exploratorium.edu/cycling/humanpower1.html)   

Unfortunately, persuading the world’s more affluent citizens to give up our cars and use bicycles exclusively is probably not practical. Yet in the Texas city of Houston, Hurricane Harvey damaged or destroyed over a million cars. Houston has been one of the nation’s most car-dependent cities, with nearly 95% of households possessing at least one car. We may not be able to coax ourselves out of our car habits entirely and use bikes as our primary means of transportation, but we can at least make cycling more attractive with bike-share programs, good trails and signage, incentives to bike rather than take the car on shorter trips.

As severe weather events impact more and more of our land area, as densely populated urban centers house higher and higher proportions of humanity, many cities are establishing resilience strategies, often with coordinators that reach across traditional departmental boundaries to integrate efforts. Cycling can be a worthwhile part of such strategies. Before the next big storm hits, let’s start cycling toward resilience.

Where the Great Wall Meets the Sea

Final Great Wall tower juts into the Bohai Gulf

Where the Great Wall Meets the Sea  —by Jinny Batterson

Earlier this summer, I had a chance to check off a minor item on my “bucket list,” finally visiting an eastern terminus of China’s Great Wall. I’d first seen a section of the wall near Beijing nearly forty years ago. Much later, I’d visited the wall’s western terminus near Jaiyuguan along a portion of the Silk Road in Gansu Province. Now I wanted to see where this 5,500 mile plus engineering marvel met the sea. One balmy, pleasantly breezy mid-June morning, I got my chance.

This Great Wall excursion was part of a much longer China trip, first reconnecting with old friends, then checking out areas of northeastern China that were new to me. Internet access in China had improved tremendously. My husband, our family’s computer nerd, was able to find enough English-language variants of Chinese travel apps to help craft an unaccompanied land tour in China’s northeast. We benefited from great advances in China’s transportation and public transit infrastructures, including high-speed rail service between most major cities. As a retiree, traveling with my retired husband, I could create an itinerary that was more flexible and slower paced than a package tour. My Mandarin skills had advanced to the point where I could carry on very basic conversations: asking directions, purchasing train tickets, ordering in restaurants, swapping basic biographical information with people in more remote areas who were curious about two “big nose” visitors.

For the Great Wall portion of our adventure, we booked several nights’ stay at a luxury hotel in the nearby city of Qinhuangdao, along China’s fashionable “gold coast.” When we arrived, the area was basking in an interval of June weather when the skies were clear and temperatures were comfortable.  Our second morning, after a sumptuous breakfast buffet featuring both Chinese and Western dishes, we ordered a taxi and headed the dozen or so miles toward the coast to visit where the wall jutted into the sea, at “Old Dragon’s Head” (Laolongtou) along the Bohai Gulf, in northern Hebei province.

Substantial parks surrounded several sections of restored wall. For centuries, walls had been built in this area in attempts to keep marauding northern tribes from attacking Chinese settlements further south. The seaside sections of the wall had been reinforced and greatly expanded during the 16th century, near the end of the Ming dynasty. Close to the wall’s descent to the sea, a few Ming dynasty stones had been left bare to show layers of the original wall’s structure. Along most other accessible portions of the wall, modern stones had been added during restoration efforts in the 1980’s and 1990’s to provide a more uniform surface.

We spent parts of two days exploring several portions of the wall, getting to and from town sometimes by taxi, at others by inexpensive public bus.  The area was blanketed with signs in Chinese, Russian, and English. A major toll road, the Jingshen Expressway, runs from Beijing over 400 miles northeast to the city of Shenyang via Tianjin, Qinhuangdao and Beidaihe, a summer hangout for senior Chinese officials. As we skirted parts of the expressway, we saw familiar green and brown highway signs, signaling exits (green)  and sights of interest (brown), the same color scheme used along many U.S. interstate highways. Tourist services were abundantly available, including a KFC where we shared a chicken nuggets lunch, surrounded by conversations in Mandarin, Italian, French, and Russian.

Looking right from the final seaside tower at Laolongtou, I could see a wide sandy beach. A little further in the other direction was a major modern container port.  I was impressed with the scope and strength of the wall itself, but flummoxed by the notion that the wall could keep out anyone out who desperately, passionately wanted to get past it—a simple small boat under cover of night might suffice. Actually, forces of China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing, had come from north of the wall and marched south through it at a strategic pass after the Ming Dynasty disintegrated due to corruption and infighting.

If, among its other craziness, our current national administration persists in plans to build a wall along the U.S.’s border, American officials might benefit from a visit to Old Dragon’s Head as a cautionary reminder. 

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses

little girls in frilly dresses, Qingdao, China

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses    —by Jinny Batterson

Last fall, one of our favorite former students in China emailed us exciting news—she was about to get married.  A few weeks later, our former student, “Mona,”  sent a second message with an attachment: a picture of her and her new husband in their wedding clothes.  Mona looked fetching, much dressier than the Mona I was used to—she posed, seated on a high stool, in an elegant flower-print dress with a brimmed hat to match. Her husband, decked out in a casual summer suit, looked over her shoulder.

For much of June this year, I had a chance to travel in mainland China and to reconnect with some former students and colleagues. Especially wonderful was a chance to visit Mona, whose new husband had been a high school classmate I didn’t yet know. They’d chosen each other after a long, sometimes long-distance courtship. I got to spend a couple of days with them. While I was visiting, Mona explained the logistics of arranging her wedding pictures, an increasingly common part of Chinese wedding preparations:

Few people actually buy clothes for their wedding pictures or have pictures taken on the wedding day itself, she explained. Rather, they rent dressy attire from specialized businesses and pick out a place and time to have professional still pictures taken, sometimes adding a brief video. They usually choose a historic or natural beauty spot, on a weekend day when both partners are off work. Because Mona is short for a woman of her generation in China, preparations were somewhat complicated. One weekend, she and her groom-to-be visited a rental agency and picked out clothes they liked in close to the proper size. The following weekend, they went back to the agency to pick up the clothes, which had been altered slightly for better fit.  On still a third weekend, she and her fiancé dressed in their rented finery and met a hired wedding photographer at the agreed upon site and time. Scheduling was tight and did not make allowances for weather. The day Mona’s pictures were taken, it poured down rain. The search for a “perfect shot” took most of a very long day and left both photographer and subjects tired and bedraggled. It took a fourth week to get the rental clothes dried, cleaned, and returned to the rental agency.   

Not long after my visit with Mona and her new spouse, I ventured out on my own to parts of central and northern China where I’d never visited before. In the northern seaside town of Qingdao, I came across a cobblestone plaza more filled than usual with elaborately dressed Chinese.  Primed by Mona’s descriptions of her wedding picture adventures, I realized that what I was viewing were a whole series of wedding photo shoots. June is a prime wedding month in China, just as in the U.S.  I counted eighteen different couples having their wedding pictures taken. The weather was windy and blustery—gowns and photo accessories were hard to keep steady. A dozen of the brides were wearing western-style dresses in white, while others had flowing formals in red, considered a lucky color in China. For one set of pictures, an entire wedding party was assembled, including five or six young girls in frilly white dresses. 

Over the course of this China visit, I noticed more and more young girls dressed in frills and bows, and not always in wedding groups. I’d see them on public busses, on trains and subways, in public parks. All were with at least one parent or grandparent. Often, a parkland family group would be taking selfies, the grandparents somewhat subdued in both manner and dress, the dads fairly casual, the moms dressier, anchored with the latest shoe fashions, the daughters often in white or pastel lacy dresses not much less formal than bridal finery. I crossed my fingers that the attention these girls were getting was a sign that the traditional stigma of having a daughter in China was lessening. None of the girls I saw looked neglected or abused. Many were far from docile. Most seemed valued family members, confident without being arrogant.

A few times, I saw girls and young women in less frilly outfits—on one park walk, the mom and dad in front of me strolled along at a normal pace, while their two daughters in trainers, shorts and tank tops raced ahead running sprints. At another public square, I noticed a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt with an English-language slogan: “Women are the Future,” it proclaimed.

My re-entry into the U.S. was through our 49th state, Alaska, where few women are shrinking violets. I saw the kennels run by the family of Susan Butcher, who’d earlier won the  long-distance Iditerod sled dog race four times.  I got to meet her elder daughter, now actively involved in training new generations of sled dogs for new challenges. Perhaps China’s daughters, and America’s, will one day soon be ready to take their places in a rapidly changing world that needs and welcomes their skills.   

Summer!

Summer!      —by Jinny Batterson

Our calendar and our weather sometimes seem out of sync these days. Spring-like days occur during what is officially labeled “winter.” Winter resurges sometimes during officially calendared “spring.” Inklings of summer can pop up at almost any time of year.  Regardless, to me there seems something slightly magical about the official start to summer—the summer solstice, which this year falls in the northern hemisphere on Wednesday, June 21. Where I now live in central North Carolina, the sunrise-to-sunset interval today is over 14 1/2 hours, with an additional several hours of pre-sunrise and post-sunset reflected light. 

When I was a child, summer included my longest vacation from school. School summer vacation overlapped with part of solar-calendar-designated summer, the period between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox around September 21.  Childhood summers were mostly carefree times then. They were times for going barefoot, toughening the soles of my feet so that after a few weeks I could show off for my friends by walking across all but the hottest, roughest surfaces without flinching. I could catch fireflies in jars and marvel at the way they blinked on and off. I found hideouts in the deepest glades of nearby woods and held picnics—sometimes with fake food and imaginary friends, at other times with filched cookies and Kool-aid plus real friends. Once, when I was invited to a friend’s country house for a sleepover, we took off our shoes and socks and spent part of an afternoon wading in a cool shallow stream, stirring up the bottom mud, then standing very still until the water cleared and small fish started nibbling at our toes. 

On hot, sultry August days, I could stretch out on a straw rug in front of a circulating floor fan in my grandmother’s slightly dimmed, cool living room and lose myself in a good book. At dusk, our family would gather on the front stoop, waiting for the ice cream truck to come down our street. I’d rush to be the first to reach the Good Humor man, holding out my dime for a creamsicle. Of course, there were challenges, too—I was very slow learning most outdoor skills, from riding a bicycle to swimming without panic in deeper water. In those days before chemical sunscreens, my fair skin would blister and peel if left exposed, so on beach excursions I was faced with the unpleasant choice of either covering up from head to foot or getting a painful sunburn. However, summer’s discomforts were vastly outweighed by the glories of its time-bending freedoms. 

Later, when as an adult I had a full-time job and was helping raise our children, summer vacations were never long enough. We’d still somehow manage to escape to our rustic cabin in the woods beside a Vermont lake for at least a couple of weeks. The cabin had running water, gravity fed from a tank up the hill. It had several wall-mounted kerosene lamps, a gas refrigerator and gas stove with an oven, but no phone and no electricity. If we timed our arrival right, we’d catch the height of wild blueberry season. Even us summer people knew of favorite, out-of-the-way spots where the bushes grew thick and the berries grew sweet. On other warm afternoons, I’d venture out onto the lake in an inflatable dinghy while the rest of the crew swam. One morning,  a wizened neighbor took me fishing. He helped me bait hooks, then gutted enough of our sunfish catch to make a good lunch. I don’t think we bothered with a clock at the cabin—times were fluid, punctuated by meals, excursions, and darkness.

Changes in technology and changes in society have greatly diminished the freedom I used to associate with summer. Lengthy stretches of free time are rare, either for our over-scheduled children, for working-age adults with little or no paid vacation, or even for many retirees who’ve succumbed to the blandishments of over-scheduled, over-priced organized tours and activities. Have we traded up to a supposedly richer existence, only to be impoverished by never having or taking time to laze, to just hang out, to enjoy our natural surroundings, to dream? 

I’m among a lucky few who who have the option to indulge in unscheduled time fairly often and who recognize its importance. As I post this, I’m partway through this year’s loosely timed adventures. If you do not have the same opportunities, please try to figure out a way to create a time window for yourself, however short, when no tasks or obligations intrude.  Take a short walk on an area greenway or trail; breathe a few deep, cleansing breaths of fresh air. Summer can become a magical time again, if we let it.        

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. 

Didace’s Garden

Didace’s Garden   —by Jinny Batterson

It’s a magical time of year here in central North Carolina. The trees have leaves of that vibrant green that’s unique to early spring, before they gradually darken and fade in the heat and dust of later seasons. Shrubs and flowers bloom in profusion, both in cultivated spaces and in parks and woodlands where they’ve either originated or escaped. Recently I spent a couple of hours “tidying up” parts of a traveling friend’s back yard. Mostly, I wanted an excuse to revel in the colors and blooms of the nearly solid wall of azaleas along one side of her property.   

As I raked and pruned, I remembered a different garden, a different season, a different part of the world. For a couple of years in the 1980’s, I had a temporary assignment in the small central African country of Burundi. Most weekdays, I worked in a rural development office in the country’s capital city of Bujumbura, participating in a project to strengthen and diversify a network of consumer/producer cooperatives throughout the country. Burundi then had a few business people and high government officials with great material wealth, a local and expatriate community of civil servants and shop owners who lived modestly, and over 90% of its populace who ground out a bare living as subsistence farmers. It is somewhat ironic that this Peace-Corps-like assignment was the only time in my life when I had human household help. Modern appliances were few; electricity was expensive and intermittent; having an employee to tend the yard was a godsend. My duplex neighbor and I shared a gardener/night watchman, Didace.

Any lasting impact I had in the country was more likely a result of my interactions with Didace than of any tasks I accomplished at the office. Though he had little formal education, Didace was proud of his skills as a small-hold farmer. While he scoffed at my feeble attempts to grow temperate-climate vegetables in the tropics, he faithfully dug small plots for me in September and January, at the beginnings of each of the country’s two rainy seasons. Later, he tracked down supports for the pea and bean vines that straggled upward. The income he got from maintaining foreigners’ gardens supplemented what he could grow on his farm to eat or sell, helping provide a better life for his family.

Before the first Christmas season of my assignment (which occurred during a lull between the shorter and longer of the two rainy seasons), I mentioned to Didace that I would be traveling to Greece to see family over the holiday. Was there anything I could bring back for him and his family as a small gift?  He thought for a while, then explained that what he’d really enjoy were some pictures of his family and his small farm. Didace had noticed the snapshots of family and travels that I kept on the room divider in our open-plan bungalow. Would I be willing to visit his home, take pictures with my (traditional) camera, then get the film developed on my trip and bring back several of the best photos?

We made plans for me to borrow a project vehicle one weekend in early December and to drive, then walk, to his family’s home in the hills above town. The paved road quickly became dirt, which gradually got more potholed and rutted. Didace met me at the intersection of the road and a person-wide path that led further into the hills. Once we arrived at his house, he pointed with pride to the tin roof he’d recently installed with a loan/advance on his monthly wages. He introduced me to his wife and two young sons, and then showed me around the small plots where they grew beans, corn, and cassava, a root vegetable whose tubers provided most of the carbohydrates of the Burundian diet. At one edge of the house was a small banana grove. A few chickens scratched in the dirt.

Then, in a small fenced area, I saw a flower garden. If memory serves, it had a mixture of gladiolas, dahlias, and other showy flowers I didn’t recognize. They were beautiful. I asked why his family chose to grow flowers on some of their limited acreage. Partly, he said, so they could sell the best blooms at the Bujumbura central market for additional income. But mainly, just because they were pretty. I wish I had made and kept copies of the pictures of Didace and his garden. Beauty knows no boundaries.            

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.”

Saint Pat, Bless His Heart…

Saint Pat, Bless His Heart…     —by Jinny Batterson

A set of reports from an ancestry DNA service recently confirmed that over half of my ancestors originated in Ireland, England, or some other part of the set of islands off the northern coast of France that its current rulers like to call the “British Isles.”  Just which parts of the islands, I cannot say with confidence, nor, apparently, can the DNA service (unless I want to spit into another tube, answer a lot of intrusive questions, and send a heftier fee). 

From what I know of the various branches of my family tree, a fair number of my ancestors were of “Scots-Irish Presbyterian” background—at some point before arriving in America, they had lived in northern Ireland, having migrated there from parts of Scotland in hopes of farming better land. At some time in the old country, also, they had deserted Roman Catholicism for Protestantism.

I follow a rather eclectic faith tradition, with a substantial modicum of “live and let live” in its theology. Yet once I ran into a situation in which my ancestors’ creed and country of origin seemed to be important. Many years ago, I was riding in a Jeep driven by an ebullient Irishman whose family name was similar to that of some of my forebears. We were on a weekend excursion to an isolated upland farming station in central Africa, along with several other international development workers. When Mr. Dudley found out that part of my ancestry was Scots-Irish Presbyterian, he commented on my lack of pedigree:

“Ach, your forefathers were renegades,” he lectured me. “They likely fought pitched battles with mine, who did their best to uphold the true faith.”  Lucky for me, he forgave my great-great-great-grands their transgressions and did not kick me out of the car.  Properly pedigreed or not, I usually sport at least a touch of green when March 17 comes around each year.

One year, when I was half a world from the U.S., teaching English at a school in a frontier outpost near  China’s northwestern border, I organized an evening English language program about the Saint Patrick’s Day holiday. It was difficult to get my students to believe that there was an island that stayed permanently green—the little bits of green in our desert oasis town required near-constant irrigation. However, there was a different link of sorts. In preparation for the program, I’d boned up on the history of Irish and Scots-Irish immigration to the United States, which began well before American independence, but peaked during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Over about a decade then, a famine in Ireland wiped out a million people and caused a million more to emigrate, reducing the island nation’s population by 20 to 25 percent. Most of my students had not been directly impacted by famines, but they generally knew stories of parents or grandparents who had, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. So there was a tenuous bond with the plight of the Irish, even if few Chinese were accustomed to wearing green, greeting leprechauns, or drinking green beer.

Now that I live in the U.S. South, I’ve been surprised to learn that one of the major Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in our country takes place in Savannah, Georgia. Second only to the New York City parade, Savannah’s festivities are lubricated by “to go cups” and last for most of the day.  According to the travel website moon.com, some of my distant relatives may have had a hand in early Savannah festivities: “ …the first parade in Savannah was organized by Irish Protestants. Thirteen members of the local Hibernian Society—the country’s oldest Irish society—took part in a private procession to Independent Presbyterian Church in 1813.” 

In 21st century America, smaller celebrations occur throughout the South, the festivities overshadowed only by “March Madness.” This evening, during halftime of whatever NCAA basketball game we happen to be watching, let us pause and hoist a glass to Saint Pat, bless his heart.