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Exceeding Expectations–Three Score Years and Eleven

Exceeding Expectations: Three Score Years and Eleven    —by Jinny Batterson

My birthday happens this month.  As I age, the years tend to go by more and more quickly. Overall, it’s been a marvelous ride so far. 

Having a spring birthday is a quirk of my arrival on earth for which I’m very grateful—spring is generally such a hopeful time of year.  Most of my birthdays have long since slipped out of memory, though a few have associations that persist: 

—my 5th birthday, the first after the birth of my younger sister, when my mother staged outdoor scavenger games in our small yard. The weather was wonderfully warm and sunny; several friends came to enjoy prizes and homemade birthday cake. For one glorious day, I didn’t have to share the limelight with the cute, dimpled new baby.

—my 11th birthday, the final year I spent in the cramped first house our family lived in, before moving to a much larger house that summer.

—my 21st birthday, when I was nearly finished college and got engaged over my birthday weekend to my future husband.

—my 30th birthday, when I was pregnant with our younger child, and we staged an “over the hill party” with friends and colleagues.

—my 50th birthday, when our children were both grown and living elsewhere and I treated myself to a decadent chocolate cake.

At the time I was born, between 1940 and 1950, life expectancy for white women was between 67 and 72 years, increasing each decade. The small liberal arts school I was attending when my twentieth birthday arrived had a college springtime tradition: attaching short poems to a weeping cherry tree in front of an ivy-festooned brick classroom building. Often a handwritten copy of A.E. Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees” was among the offerings:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Back then three score years and ten seemed impossibly old—older even than my parents, aunts, and uncles in our long-generation family.

In the part of North Carolina where I now live, early spring days in 2018 have seen more than one frosting of actual snow, so warmer days and cherry trees hung with blooms are most welcome.  In our woodlands, white-blossomed cherries share center stage with white and pink dogwoods plus redbud trees whose smallish flowers are more pink than red. Along major roads and interstates this year, an extensive array of big, blowsy lavender wisteria clusters has draped adjacent trees. 

And I’ve had the chance to watch the “woodland ride” now for threescore years and eleven—a wonderful bonus. Happy springtime, y’all, wherever you spend it!       

Radio Mille Collines and the Limits to Free Speech

Radio Mille Collines and the Limits to Free Speech   —by Jinny Batterson

Each of us beyond infancy is, I believe, a product of both nature and nurture. Genetic traits and predispositions we’re born with get adjusted over time by our experiences and our successive re-interpretations of those experiences. I seem to have been born with a predisposition toward nervousness, so it’s probable that the name-calling and mud-slinging that too often inhabit media and political spaces in current-day America feel more threatening and more repugnant to me than they might to someone with a less nervous temperament.

Still, my “nurture” plays a role as well. During the 1980s, I spent two years in the economically impoverished central African country of Burundi working on rural development. Before I went, I did as much research as I could in those pre-internet days about the country I’d be living in for a time: Burundi was for most of its history a sparsely populated, geographically isolated mountainous kingdom with a preponderance of rural herders and farmers. Then, starting in the late 19th century, Burundi became first a German, then a Belgian colony, administered along with neighboring Rwanda. Neither colonial power provided much development support. During their four-plus decades of rule, Belgian administrators often used “divide and conquer” tactics, exacerbating tensions between the area’s two main ethnic groups: the Tutsis, most of whom owned and herded cattle, and the Hutus, who tended instead to farm multiple small plots owned communally by extended families in the Burundian and Rwandan hillsides, or “collines.” Since its early 1960s independence, Burundi’s trajectory has included political assassinations plus a massive ethnic conflict in the early 1970s that killed an estimated 300,000 Burundians. 

When I first arrived, I spoke none of the local language, Kirundi. I had little notion of which of my coworkers and neighbors were Tutsi and which were Hutu. Physically similar, with the same language and skin tone, Tutsis and Hutus were sometimes characterized as “talls” and “shorts” in an exaggeration of one trait that distinguishes them at the extremes. Because of intermarriage, a fair number of Burundians were and are a mixture of both groups. During my stay, I gradually built up a very basic Kirundi vocabulary. Though fluency remained beyond my grasp, I understood enough so that when I attended a local soccer game about halfway through my assignment, I recognized the derogatory use of a word meaning “short,” yelled at the opposing team by some nearby spectators. Not quite as offensive as the “n” word in American speech, the epithet was still intended to be disrespectful. 

During the 1980s, Burundi and neighboring Rwanda were relatively calm, but starting in 1993 both countries again descended into wholesale bloodletting, with the widely publicized Rwandan genocide of 1994 and a less-media-covered simmering civil war in Burundi.  Part of the build-up to the Rwandan genocide consisted of incitements by a privately owned radio station, Radio Mille Collines (Radio of a Thousand Hillsides), against ethnic Tutsis and moderates of all groups. According to a summary by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies:

“From October 1993 to late 1994, Radio-Television-des-Mille-Collines (RTLM) was used by Hutu leaders to advance an extremist Hutu message and anti-Tutsi disinformation, spreading fear of a Tutsi genocide against Hutu, identifying specific Tutsi targets or areas where they could be found, and encouraging the progress of the genocide. In April 1994, Radio Rwanda (the official government station) began to advance a similar message, speaking for the national authorities, issuing directives on how and where to kill Tutsis, and congratulating those who had already taken part.”  The Institute has published detailed transcripts of many of these station broadcasts in English, French, or Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan local language.

After the genocide and a change of government in Rwanda, international criminal proceedings brought to trial some of the political leaders of genocide-era Rwanda, along with some of the media leaders who had helped foment hatred with their increasingly strident broadcasts. Not all ringleaders could be located and brought to justice, but 92  high-ranking defendants were indicted for their roles in a 100-day rampage that killed an estimated 800,000 Rwandans.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I sometimes fear for my own country and for our planet. Derogatory speech is again on the rise globally, whether from politicians, media pundits, or just disgruntled citizens and residents. Americans belonging to groups who have in the past been targets of repression and/or genocide—African-Americans, Jews, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, among others—feel the impact most deeply, but it affects us all.  As one European Jewish leader put it, “While hate speech and incitement is far too often dismissed as bigoted ranting or merely painful words, it can also serve as an important warning sign for much more severe consequences. Almost every genocide, ethnic cleansing or inter-ethnic conflict in modern history was preceded by violent words. We witnessed inflammatory public speech rise steadily before outbreaks of mass violence, whether in Nazi Germany, Rwanda or in the former Yugoslavia.”   

Of course we need to be able to express opposing views, but we need to be able to express them civilly, rather than by using name-calling, blaming, or personal attacks. Free speech is not the same as hate speech or incitement—please let us learn and teach the difference before it’s too late. 

   

Teaching about Easter in Zhengzhou, China

Teaching About Easter in Zhengzhou, China  —by Jinny Batterson

By now, I’ve spent several springtimes in various parts of China. In most places, I’ve not been very aware of Easter. Christianity is not a strong part of Chinese tradition, and at certain times and places the modern Chinese government has discouraged or even banned celebrations of the Easter holiday. Of course, most of our Easter decorations are made in China. In 2018, over 200 Chinese companies manufactured or distributed Easter decorations —might a bit of the festival’s flavor rub off on factory workers who fashion bunnies and candy and greeting cards? 

The first time I taught English in China, in 2002 in the central provincial capital of Zhengzhou, Henan, I happened to be there when Western Easter fell. Easter Sunday would occur about midway through the several weeks I spent at a private high school that specialized in preparing students for advanced study overseas. The previous week, I’d noticed that the city’s most upscale hotel had a rain-resistant outdoor display of larger than life bunnies and decorated plastic eggs. 

“Aha,” I thought, “an intercultural teaching opportunity!” 

Not wanting to be viewed as a religious proselytizer, something uniformly frowned on by Chinese authorities, I scoured the city’s markets and stores for the more secular accoutrements of this springtime festival, with help and advice from the school principal’s wife. After several shopping expeditions, I’d scrounged up jelly beans and chocolate bunnies, plus fabric, poster paper, glue, staples, and fake flowers to make Easter bonnets. I scheduled a “foreign teacher’s Sunday afternoon Easter social” for one of the larger indoor classrooms and publicized the event to all my classes and to the school staff. Although Sunday was not an official teaching day, the social drew the majority of my students,  plus a few of the Chinese teachers and staff.

“Many American towns,” I explained, “hold afternoon Easter parades. Everyone is glad when the weather turns pleasant after the chill of winter. People dress in their finest spring clothes, including elaborate flowered hats for the women. Sometimes people bring their dogs along and put costumes on them, too. In my city of Richmond, Virginia, people walk up and down about a mile of a major street which has been temporarily closed to automobile traffic. They show off their fine outfits and greet their neighbors.”

Some of the Zhengzhou teen girl students crafted elaborate flowered hats. The most chic pretended that our room’s center aisle was a fashion runway. Some English got spoken, if the conversations rarely moved much beyond the level of “Nice hat!” All the candy and snacks got eaten.

This year I’m spending springtime in the U.S.  Easter is fast approaching. I miss the pageantry and excitement that I’ve usually noticed in previous years spent in America.  The Christian message of forgiveness and redemption seems notably absent—we often are too busy sniping and snarling at each other, discussing the latest scandals on social media and rarely talking with our physical neighbors.  I wonder sometimes whether my Zhengzhou students might have been closer to the spirit of Easter than our purportedly Christian-majority U.S. has become.  How would it be to put aside our perceived differences and to take an afternoon stroll together? Even if our conversations rarely get beyond “Nice hat!”, perhaps we could make a start toward healing some of our self-inflicted societal fractures. 

Spring Hopes Eternal

Spring Hopes Eternal   –by Jinny Batterson

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

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

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

 

 

Dragon Kites on Tiananmen Square

Dragon Kites on Tiananmen Square    —by Jinny Batterson

(Portions of this post have been adapted from my upcoming book, Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)

A growing number of locations world-wide are sponsoring kite festivals. In the town where I now live, March winds bring out people of all ages, eager to enjoy the outdoors as winter ebbs, to search for just the right spot and orientation to launch their creations skyward. The basic homemade wrapping-paper-and-balsa-strut diamond shaped kites I flew as a child pale in comparison with the elaborate heirloom and contemporary kites that participate in some of these festivals. A quick internet search turned up an American-based kite flyers association with members in 25 countries, with at least one U.S.-based festival in every month of the year.  (http://kite.org/activities/events/event-calendar/)

One blustery spring day in 2000 on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, I got to see a few of the world’s most cherished, most elaborate kites. My husband and I were partway through a tourist stay in Beijing. Our first two days had been filled with organized guided tours: the Forbidden City, a nearby section of the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, some of the subterranean tunnels built under the modern city during the 1960’s and 1970’s to shelter residents in the event of a bombing attack by “the Soviets or another country,” as our tour guide put it. Now we had a free day to explore on our own. We decided to return to the vicinity of Tiananmen Square.

As we approached, we noticed several box kites bobbing and weaving in the sky above.  Once on the square itself, we found several older men preparing their heirloom dragon kites for flight. The kites, nearly fifty feet long, had extensive tails made of circles of paper glued to lightweight wooden rings, all linked together by three parallel strings that ran the kites’ entire length and could be used for steering. The rings were decorated with sturdy feathers for stability. Only when the tail was almost fully aloft was the dragon-shaped head of the kite attached and quickly pulled skyward. We watched until our necks cramped from craning upward. We had little language to express our amazement—Jim gave a thumbs up sign. Perhaps our rapt attention was language enough.

Where the Great Wall Meets the Desert

Where the Great Wall Meets the Desert   —by Jinny Batterson

(This entry is adapted from excerpts of Where the Great Wall Ends: A China Memoir, due out later this year.)

In August 2006, I got to see the western end of the Great Wall, near Jaiyuguan, a small city in Gansu province. Many years earlier, I’d first seen part of the wall near Beijing on a guided group tour. On this 2006 visit, my husband Jim and I were headed in stages by train to our first year-long China teaching assignment, in far western Xinjiang. We hadn’t originally planned to view the western terminus of the Great Wall, but fate (and some poor planning on our part) had landed us in Jaiyuguan for an overnight stay.   

We’d been able to get from our initial arrival city of Beijing as far as Jaiyuguan with the assistance of English-speaking Chinese friends and helpful travel agents. The further we got from Beijing, the fewer local people we knew.  Also, the less likely we were to encounter English-capable travel agents. Once we arrived in Jaiyuguan, we knew no one. We’d met no one on the train we could ask for help. We got ourselves and our luggage off onto the station platform. Then I approached the station clerk to buy tickets that evening for the next stage of our westward journey. I got stonewalled. Pulling out my phrase book, trying different dates, I got repeated exposure to a Chinese expression that’s become one of my least favorites: “Mei you,” (pronounced like the abbreviated version of mayonnaise), meaning roughly, “Don’t have.”

Stymied as far as immediate train travel was concerned, we located a helpful taxi driver who guided us to a comfortable tourist hotel near Jaiyuguan’s city center. Luckily we were able to arrange at least one night’s stay there. After we’d settled into our hotel room, we explored a nearby city park, ate dinner at a local restaurant, checked out some small shops, then spent a quiet night’s sleep away from a clanking, crowded train.

The following morning, we decided to do a little local touring. Using sign language, a bilingual tourist map of the area, and some basic Mandarin, we engaged a taxi to take us to the fort at the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven,” the westernmost outpost of the Great Wall. Our driver, a middle-aged woman, would wait for about an hour while we toured, then return us to our hotel in town.

The fort was several miles west, straddling the narrowest portion of a corridor between two high hills. Our map’s brief commentary explained that it had been built to guard against barbarian invaders who could descend toward China through the pass.  Much of the fort had recently been reconstructed. It was tall, square, thick, appropriately forbidding, with concentric sets of walls and gates to keep invaders out and soldiers in. It had its own water supply. A holding pond to one side supported a luxuriant growth of shoreline willows. From the fort’s highest walls, I could see nearby wall remnants that were little more than crumbling mounds of packed earth in a parched landscape.

I saw few other foreigners. There was little English-language signage to explain the construction and history of this portion of the wall. Then a Chinese dad who sported a T-shirt advertising a Charlottesville, Virginia, pizza shop engaged me in conversation and provided some additional information:

“The fort is built mainly of rammed earth. Its initial construction occurred during the Ming Dynasty, starting in the 14th century. In addition to being a military fort, it was also a trading post along the Silk Road between China and the West,” he told me.

When I asked how he’d come by his excellent English and his American-themed shirt, the man told me he was a cardiologist who’d done part of his training at the University of Virginia’s Medical Center. Before I could ask many more questions, he politely bid me good-bye, rounded up his family, and departed the scene in an air-conditioned minivan that looked a great deal more comfortable than our taxi.     

Remnants of the Great Wall near Jaiyuguan, Gansu in northwest China

Who Was Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Why Does It Matter?

Who Was Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Why Does It Matter?                                                              —by Jinny Batterson

After the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at a high school in south Florida, I listened to some of the early news reports. Of course, there was outrage at the taking of seventeen lives, fourteen of them students at the school. There was the customary soul-searching and hand-wringing over supposed reasons for the violence that once again had erupted in our midst.

Then I partially tuned out. I wrote yet another set of letters and messages to my NRA-indebted U.S. Senators. I commiserated with family and friends. I tried to focus mainly on small, more localized projects where I could make a positive difference.

While I tried to process this latest affront to human dignity, somewhere in the back of my mind, the name Marjory Stoneman Douglas rang a bell. Most high schools are named either geographically, or for some local educator or political figure. Why, then, did this woman’s name seem somehow familiar?  After a while, I checked the internet for a biography of Ms. Stoneman Douglas. First I noticed a picture of an aged woman in a brimmed hat, holding a cat on her lap. Skimming the accompanying text, I found that Marjory had been born in 1890, an only child of a marriage that unraveled when she was six. She spent much of her childhood under the stern tutelage of her mother’s parents in Taunton, Massachusetts. As she grew up, her mother’s mental and physical health deteriorated, leading to several institutionalizations, then a death due to metastatic breast cancer shortly after Marjory graduated from college. 

Always an avid reader, Marjory began writing for publication in her teens. After a brief tumultuous marriage, Marjory moved to Florida in 1915 and worked for several years at her father’s newspaper, which eventually became the Miami Herald. Over time, she established a career as a free-lance writer, penning over 100 articles and short stories, several novels, as well as the non-faction account The Everglades: River of Grass, first published in 1947.

Now the connection clicked—I’d spent a couple of vacations exploring parts of Everglades National Park, including the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Wilderness Area. I read further into her biography. In later life, Douglas became a tireless advocate for preservation of the Everglades, earning several awards, plus the enmity of some agricultural and real estate developers. She turned 100 the year Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School opened, and lived for eight more years, continuing to write and speak about the need for good environmental stewardship. According to a local journalist who’d interviewed Stoneman Douglas several times, “She had a tongue like a switchblade and the moral authority to embarrass bureaucrats and politicians and make things happen.”

I applaud the ongoing efforts by student survivors at the school named in her honor to reimagine our national obsession with guns. I’ve heard that some of their fundraising appeals contain variations of this Stoneman Douglas quote: “Be a nuisance where it counts; Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action. Be depressed, discouraged, and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics—but never give up.”  She didn’t give up. Neither can we. 

         

Civic Faith, Civic Hope, Civic Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Parable for Our Time?

A Parable for Our Times?  —by Jinny Batterson

A number of years ago, a friend told me the following parable, which I’ve adapted slightly to fit our current situation:

During a rare break in legislative sessions, a small bipartisan group of junior legislators arranged a recreational outing at a big scenic lake nearby.  Everyone was invited. The hosts hoped that during this lull in legislative routine, they could begin to rebuild some of the trust and cooperative spirit that had badly frayed during several previous contentious debates.

All was going well, with even a slight uptick in cordiality, until a sudden storm came up and capsized the large tour boat where everyone was riding. Panic set in; most passengers were thrown overboard. Two of the area’s leading legislators, one from each party, were thrown further from the main boat than the rest, out of sight of the others. Just as both were about to go under, neither having learned to swim, they spied a small row boat nearby. At first it seemed they might come to blows or try to keep each other out of the smaller boat, but after a bit both made it in, one at either end.  Although there were oars in the oar locks, neither legislator made any move toward rowing to shore. Instead, the two sat, stone-faced, as the small boat floated in circles in the middle of the lake. A while later, the boat began to fill with water—it was likely not a brand-new boat and had perhaps not had the best of maintenance. There was a bailing bucket attached to a rope on the boat’s floor, but neither legislator made a move toward bailing, either. Instead, the two continued to glare at each other.

Finally, one concentrated his most withering gaze on the other and said with a sneer, “Your end of the boat is sinking.”    

Groundhog

Groundhog  —by Jinny Batterson

Harbinger of spring, furry cousin of a squirrel,
We celebrate your special day
By snatching you from burrow and sleep
To blink at the light–strong sun means longer winter.

Midway between poinsettia and forsythia,
We want a fellow creature to provide some assurance
That winter will end–a prognostication from one
Who also dislikes freezing cold and biting storms.

You don’t much care about the splendor of the overcoats,
Scarves, or top hats of those who briefly torment you.
Their race, religion, creed, or politics also matter little.

What’s more important Is that they make their
Ceremony short, so that you can return to needed
Rest before the frenzy of spring.

Plump marmot, I salute you; I beg for
Your wisdom to forebear when poked and prodded
And made to squint in uncomfortable directions.

And, yes, I want to believe that spring is on its way,
Whatever its speed.