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. 

International Women’s Day Thoughts

International Women’s Day Thoughts  —by Jinny Batterson

March 8, 2017 will be celebrated in many countries as International Women’s Day, a holiday that gradually has taken hold since the early 20th century as a way to honor women’s economic and social contributions and to press for more equitable treatment of the “fairer sex.”  No one agency, country, or non-profit is a primary sponsor for International Women’s Day. Some companies have underwritten celebrations in various places, perhaps hoping to get their names associated with being good corporate citizens, perhaps welcoming this occasion to market their products more emphatically to women.    

The first time I had a chance to participate in an International Women’s Day celebration came a decade ago, when I was teaching English at a small agricultural college on the far northwestern fringes of China. That year the holiday fell on a Thursday, and our classes were shortened to allow for an afternoon of amateur intramural sports. According to the journal entry I made at the time, I participated in “water bottle bowling” and jump rope competitions, winning an extra liter of cooking oil and a ribbon for my efforts.

In 2014, I attended a North Carolina International Women’s Day gathering in a local church hall on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t remember a whole lot about the celebration—it was small and fairly informal. Among the participants were several older nuns and a different group of singing elders, the “Raging Grannies.” The grannies wore aprons and floppy garden hats and belted out political satire words set to traditional tunes. After a while, all of us went home.

International Women’s Day was first recognized by the United Nations in 1975, in conjunction with the first International Women’s Conference and a U.N. themed “Year of the Woman.”  That same year, though not on International Women’s Day, women in the Nordic country of Iceland decided to take a day off to illustrate how vital women were to the smooth functioning of Icelandic society, despite what was then a 40% pay gap. According to excerpts from the account given by the BBC in 2015, the October, 1975 “Women’s Day Off” was a turning point in the relationship between the sexes in Iceland:

“Instead of going to the office, doing housework or childcare they took to the streets in their thousands to rally for equal rights with men. (An estimated 90% of Icelandic women took part, including rural women.)

It is known in Iceland as the Women’s Day Off, and Vigdis Finnbogadottir (Iceland’s first woman Prime Minister, elected initially in 1980) sees it as a watershed moment.

‘What happened that day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland,’ she says. ‘It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.’

Banks, factories and some shops had to close, as did schools and nurseries – leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. There were reports of men arming themselves with sweets and colouring pencils to entertain the crowds of overexcited children in their workplaces. Sausages – easy to cook and popular with children – were in such demand the shops sold out.

It was a baptism of fire for some fathers, which may explain the other name the day has been given – the Long Friday.”

The pay gap in Iceland has not entirely disappeared, though it has shrunk to one of the smallest of any nation. In 2016, Icelandic women for a single day staged a smaller work stoppage as a protest of the enduring part of the wage gap—figuring that they were paid 14% less than men for equal work, many quit work at 2:38 p.m. rather than “work for free” for the rest of the day.   

So far, International Women’s Day has not caught on in a big way in the United States of America, where the gender wage gap hovers at about 20% nationwide, with considerable variation by state and a much larger gap for women of color. One of the initiatives favored by the current U.S. administration is support for childcare expenses, which typically helps families with working parents. So far, there is little detail about how such support would be administered or financed.  Considerable skepticism exists about whether that support would be structured to help improve the lives and earning capacity of those at the bottom of the wage scale.

In my family, women through the generations have carried at least their share of both nurturing and earnings responsibilities. If I do nothing else this International Women’s Day, I will pause for a moment to honor these foremothers who farmed, ran households, got educated, taught, provided vital family income, and invested for the future. Once they got the right to vote, they for darn sure did their best to make fulfillment and advancement easier for their daughters as well as for their sons.    

The Wrong Way to Make Mac and Cheese

The Wrong Way to Make Mac and Cheese   —by Jinny Batterson

Why is our town/county/state/nation/planet (choose all that apply) in such an uproar at the moment?  Isn’t there anything we can agree on any more? 

Some days, I wonder how we ever got to this point. Then I remember an incident that happened when I was maybe 12. Our family had recently moved from a smallish cottage into a brand-new large brick house in a nearby neighborhood of the same Maryland town. My parents, assisted by their parents, had scrimped and saved for over a decade to be able to afford our expanded quarters, which my dad’s small construction company helped build.

For me, the biggest contrast with our old digs was not the spacious bedroom that I no longer had to share with a younger sister and two younger brothers, but the abundance of playmates my age in the neighborhood, most of them girls. Not too long after we moved, one of the girls I didn’t know all that well invited me over to her house for dinner and a sleepover. What a treat! I hadn’t been to stay at a playmate’s house in forever. I checked with my mom for permission, then packed a small suitcase for the Friday evening adventure at Mary’s house.   

Most of the houses in our new neighborhood had been built on spacious grounds a couple of generations earlier as summer homes for Baltimore lawyers and their families, fleeing the heat and diseases of urban Augusts. Mary’s house was one of the more modest ones. By the time I walked the short distance to her place, it was starting to get dark. Mary’s artist mother had an appointment somewhere and had left supper in the oven for us, promising Mary she’d be home in an hour or two. This was a departure from the routine I was used to—my parents had not yet allowed us to spend evening time without their supervision or that of a babysitter.

After Mary gave me a quick tour of the house’s hallways and somewhat drafty rooms, we returned to the large kitchen. Mary’s mom had set a small table with placemats, plates and silverware, and had put down a thick potholder in the table’s center. Following her mom’s instructions, Mary picked up two more potholders, carefully took an unlidded casserole out of the oven, and put it in the center of the table. We started in on supper. Humph!  It was macaroni and cheese, but not at all what I was used to. I’m not sure whether my 12-year-old self had the tact to avoid criticizing the food to Mary, but I remember describing it to my mom in lurid detail once I got home the next day. The noodles on the top of the casserole had dried out in the oven, and even toward the bottom, this mac and cheese was not the soft, gooey mass I was used to eating at home. My mom was a basic cook. She’d managed to get nourishing, if somewhat bland, food on the table for us each evening promptly at 6, using a minimum of burners and pans. Who ever heard of cooking macaroni and cheese in an oven?

Mom was wiser than to contradict an obstinate, pubescent daughter directly. Instead, she asked, “How did it taste?”

After a little thought, I said, “Not bad, really. The noodles were kind of crunchy, but the cheese was tangier than the Velveeta we use at our house. I guess I could eat some again.”

Since then, I’ve been lucky to have had chances to sample many different kinds of pasta and cheese, and of other, more exotic combinations of carbohydrates and proteins. Not all of them have been to my liking, but I have at least learned that there are many valid ways of producing macaroni and cheese. Is it possible there are many valid ways to do other things as well? 

Eating Out in Twenty-Nine Palms: Honoring National Service

Eating Out in Twenty-Nine Palms, Honoring National Service   

                                                  —by Jinny Batterson

During part of our most recent political transition, in late 2016, I spent several days in the desert interior of southern California, exploring the area around Joshua Tree National Park. From a small vacation rental home in the town of Twenty-Nine Palms, my husband and I could drive several miles uphill to a park entrance. We could explore the park’s trails, marvel at its unique geological formations, view the large members of the yucca family that gave the park its name, and experience the variety of its altitudes and desert landscapes. Toward the end of our stay, a heavy wind kicked up, making hiking less appealing, so we spent some time indoors, learning about the town. At the Chamber of Commerce, we watched a film about the town’s history and viewed displays and pamphlets. We learned that the town’s first growth spurt had come in the wake of World War I. Then, a sympathetic veteran physician specializing in lung ailments had begun to recommend the climate around Twenty-Nine Palms to fellow veterans suffering from mustard gas exposure or tuberculosis. The dry air and moderate altitude provided an ideal setting for recovery. Several hundred veterans filed homestead claims in the area.

We also learned that a large modern U.S. Marine base existed nearby, in the opposite direction from the park. Soldiers could be stationed there for periods ranging from a few months to several years, with over 50,000 military personnel receiving training the preceding year. We drove out to the base gate—the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center/Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command—but were unable to enter without an approved escort.

That evening, we ate in town at a small local restaurant that catered to a burgers-and-milkshakes clientele.  When we first arrived, the restaurant’s central area was completely filled by a set of pushed-together tables where a dozen young people, five men and seven women, were chatting and ordering food. They looked fit and tired, primed to enjoy a simple evening meal. Several were wearing matching sweatshirts with the initials “NCCC” on the back.  I guessed they might be members of some rock climbing club, since the park was a mecca for climbers. After a bit, my curiosity got the better of me and I walked over to one end of their table.

“What does ‘NCCC’ stand for?”  I asked. “Are you a rock climbing group?”

“No ma’am,” responded one of the young men. “We’re a team from the National Civilian Community Corps. We’re on our way back to our base in Sacramento after an eight-week assignment helping repair homes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that were damaged by last summer’s floods.”

As my husband and I ordered our food and waited while it was prepared, half a dozen young men with short haircuts arrived and settled into two booths nearby. They were in civilian clothes, but I guessed they might be on leave from the marine base: several barber shops in town advertised “Marine haircuts,” and these fit the bill. The men talked quietly among themselves as they too ordered and waited for their suppers. 

Both the Marines and NCCC volunteers I saw at dinner in Twenty-Nine Palms were training and practicing to meet whatever threats and emergencies might require a military response, civilian action, or some combination of the two. I was grateful for their service, as I remembered previous generations of Americans who had participated in larger numbers in either military or civilian service—the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930’s depression years, or the military draftees of the 1940’s World War II era and beyond.  Surveying these young service men and women at supper in 2016, I also imagined what it might look like for similar service again to become a bigger part of our American society.

Various bills introduced in Congress since 2003 have attempted to create a framework for some sort of mandatory service component for young people, including a modest monetary stipend and educational funding assistance. Our nation’s physical and educational infrastructures are aging. Elements of our natural environment are threatened. The needs are great; the potential even greater. On this Presidents’ Day, let’s renew the value of public service as part of our heritage and responsibility as Americans. From the loftiest tasks to the most humble, each of us has something worthwhile to contribute. When a service ethic is lacking, we are all impoverished, and not just monetarily.        

Hauling Rocks Uphill

Hauling Rocks Uphill     —by Jinny Batterson

My particular piedmont town has experienced dramatic population growth in the past half century—nearly a thirty-fold increase. However, the steepest slopes of our region, sculpted as it is with lots of hills and gullies, restrict or defy human building. These areas have often been allotted to park use, with bicycle and walking paths at their base: greenways. As a recent arrival, I’m not sure, walking our greenways between tract home developments, condos, and apartment complexes, what our landscape looked like when far fewer people lived here. One thing I’m fairly certain of, though: in times past, there were fewer jagged rocks lining our freshets and streams. 

A large granite quarry sits at the north edge of town. Throughout the area, many recesses in our ravines are filled with angular mid-to-large-sized rocks trucked in from the quarry. Rocks line our bridge approaches and help terrace the steepest washes.  These rocks aren’t nearly as scenic as naturally rounded river stones would be, but they help reduce erosion and serve to slow run-off when we have sudden downpours, which happens fairly often these days. Over time, some of the stones get covered with vegetation, leaves, or mosses, and blend better with their surroundings.   

Geologists have elaborated a plate-tectonic theory of earth’s crust that goes a long way toward explaining our peaks and valleys—as tectonic plates collide, mountains are pushed up. Elevations shift. Former sea beds get elevated. Yet, over geological time, even the tallest mountains are worn down by erosion, their rocks dissolving into sand or soil or carried back still-formed into the seas.

Until I moved here, much of my context about hauling rocks came from an ancient Greek myth and its modern French retelling—the story of Sisyphus.  Sisyphus was a Corinthian king who, on multiple occasions, fooled the gods and cheated death. When he finally did die, as even tricksters must, the gods took their revenge by condemning him to an eternity of pushing a large rock uphill, only to have it roll back down again once he’d reached the top. French author Albert Camus wrote a widely quoted 1942 essay in which he claimed that much of modern life had exposed mankind to Sisyphean tragedy, but that embracing life’s challenges was a way to live fully, anyway:  “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

For the past year or so, I’ve been engaged physically in a small-scale rock hauling effort of my own, shoring up the pad surrounding our heat pump, trying to reduce erosion and run-off in our fairly steep yard by hand-carrying surplus rocks up from a nearby floodplain. My landscaping efforts are not perfect, but they seem to help a little.  This past Christmas, I visited a small mountain resort town in California and stayed at a country inn whose previous owners had laboriously hauled lots and lots of rounded stones from nearby creek beds. They used the stones to craft a huge stone-and-masonry fireplace, plus a massive interior wall that was as beautiful as the fireplace was functional.     

The present era seems to be a time when many of us also are engaged in figurative rock-hauling. Institutions of self-government that we long took for granted seem under stress, eroding, being carried downhill toward a totalitarian sea.  It can seem daunting to write one more letter, attend one more demonstration, make one more phone call, have one more discussion across ideological lines, pray one more prayer. And yet this work is just as necessary as physical rock-hauling. Even when human societies get warped by fear and hatred, it’s still necessary to continue—we, too, must stay happy in the struggle toward the heights.

White Privilege, the Capacity to Leave, and the World’s Changing Games

White Privilege, the Capacity to Leave, and the World’s Changing Games   

                                                       —by Jinny Batterson

As our nation veers closer and closer to fascism, I’m dismayed and unbalanced. How did we come to this point, I ask myself? How was I complicit? How can we as a society rebalance? 

As a “leading edge boomer white female,” I’ve followed a similar trajectory to that of many liberal-leaning members of my cohort: protesting the Vietnam war; attending Earth Days; joining various consciousness-raising groups; experimenting briefly with consciousness-altering substances; absorbing uplifting books, films and workshops about human possibilities; doing a Peace Corps stint in sub-Saharan Africa; later, in semi-retirement, doing shorter volunteer or low-paid assignments teaching English in rural China.

Where I may have diverged from classmates who moved to the suburbs, raised families, and enrolled their children in “superior” school systems, is that for over twenty years, I lived in America’s core cities. The neighborhoods where I settled were “marginal,” working class, multi-racial. At first, this was an economic necessity—my twenty-somethings were littered with lots of employment mis-steps and accidents. Rents and mortgage payments were lower in areas that had been written off by most of the real estate establishment. But I stayed. Partly this was a semi-conscious effort to atone for some slaveholding ancestors who conferred on me an undeserved inherited advantage. Later, it was partly to help prepare our children for a global society with no single dominant group. As I got to know my neighbors better, my staying got to be more and more about their kind and forgiving natures, and their partial immunity to the materialism I saw so much of elsewhere. I chose to be a visible “minority” presence. And there’s the rub.

The neighbors who surrounded me in inner city Baltimore or inner city Richmond had fewer options for leaving than I did. Legal discrimination, or, increasingly, lack of income or of inherited wealth, made it difficult or impossible for them to afford housing in “better” areas. When I lived in Burundi and visited with peasant families in Burundi and Rwanda, most had little chance for schooling beyond the most elementary levels, in crowded, under-equipped classrooms. Few could travel, either in their own countries or abroad. Their prospects for improving their lot in life were terribly limited. In high schools or agricultural colleges where I taught English in China, students were not likely to be able to use their skills—after graduation, most would work long hours at soul-destroying jobs in big cities. They might at best be able to show off for their parents or grandparents on holiday visits back home.

By contrast, I could take time away from Baltimore or Richmond to recharge at a summer cabin by a pristine lake in Vermont. When sub-Saharan Africa got too depressing, I could join my family on extended holiday in Europe. In China, I spent a winter break at a posh beach resort, a summer interval being escorted by a high-ranking official around the historic sights of Beijing.

The world I grew up in is changing at ever-increasing speed. Within the U.S., we are becoming more immigrant, more “non-white,” more interethnic than ever. Globally, we’ve expanded travel and communications by orders of magnitude. However, we’re also changing our earth’s atmosphere and oceans in ways that will make life less predictable and probably more difficult for all living creatures. Movie fantasies aside, precious few of us have the wealth and/or training to be able to leave the planet and survive. This changes the game, even for those of us with privilege.

The new game requires me and others with privileges conferred by birth, inheritance, skill and/or luck to practice “not leaving.” Of course, I will still need to protest injustices, to improve my environmental stewardship, to raise my awareness, to celebrate human possibilities. But I will need to do more. Even in situations that make me uncomfortable or defensive, I will need to remain fully present, and then to listen, deeply. I will need to practice staying, and staying, and staying. I can no longer afford not to.

Twitter Fodder

Twitter Fodder    —by Jinny Batterson

I don’t have a Twitter account, nor am I ever likely to. I’m too wordy to accept that much that’s worth saying can fit into just 140 characters.  So I was somewhat surprised the other morning when I awoke after a good night’s sleep to find a Twitter-length snippet pushing its way into my journal: 

If you play only zero-sum games, you’re likely to wind up a big fat zero.

Fewer than 100 characters, even including a couple of adjectives that could, if need be, be left out. Few big words, except maybe “zero-sum,” a shorthand way of explaining the attitude that for me to win, you have to lose an equal amount from a fixed total, with no room for sharing or “win-win” solutions. “Big fat zero” may be slightly old-fashioned, but familiar as a taunt to anyone who’s ever spent time on an elementary school playground.

 What did it mean for me to have such a short saying barging into my thoughts, and maybe even my writing?  After a bit, a memory surfaced. I was back at our public high school, in my favorite teacher’s French class. Mrs. Nash didn’t so much teach French as she taught life. One of her favorite tools was a series of aphorisms, or short sayings, attributed to historical French writers. The discussion I remember best centered around a pithy quote by philosopher Charles-Louis de Montesquieu, who lived in France starting in the late 17th century. He wrote a lot about the conditions and rights of man. He is credited with having said:

Every man has his price.

As Mrs. Nash guided the conversation, we fairly quickly broadened our definition of “price” to include things other than a monetary sum or material item. Suppose the price involved our being embarrassed or made very uncomfortable? What about sacrificing our health? Suppose the price meant having a loved one put in danger? What if it demanded that we give up cherished ideas or principles? Suppose the price pitted short-term gain against long-term survival?

We never resolved the issue. Later discussions, in Mrs. Nash’s class and elsewhere, were based on a cross-section of similar sayings, not all of them by French authors:

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?
People who know little are usually great talkers, while men who know much say little.
(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-1778) 

No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.
Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.
(Adam Smith, 1723-1790) 

No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.
(Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797)         

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.
(John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873) 

It gradually dawned on me that these “aphorisms” were the “tweets” of their times, considerably wiser than the 72 characters that had descended on me, or, I’m guessing, much else that gets posted on Twitter these days. 

As many of our online civic discussions continue to deteriorate into name-calling and evermore selective choice of facts, I’m sometimes tempted to despair. But I know that despair never changes anything for the better.  So I take frequent breaks to slow down and collect my thoughts, grateful to have this luxury at the current stage of my life. Not all do. However, all of us have time to take a deep breath. We can all briefly turn off or tune out the many distractions of our increasingly distracted society.  We all can imagine a place and time when we felt safe and cared for.  From deep within this setting of safety and love comes an important insight, one so short that it could fit ten times in a standard tweet:  

Pay attention.

Welcoming the Year of the Rooster

Welcoming the Year of the Rooster    —by Jinny Batterson

Cock-a-doodle-doo!  (Or maybe wo-wo-wo!, the Chinese Mandarin equivalent.) This Saturday, January 28, 2017, will mark the beginning of the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese lunar calendar. People of Chinese background throughout the world may gather to celebrate what is known in most Western countries as Chinese New Year. This festival has been celebrated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It remains China’s most important annual festival, even in modern times. Visiting extended family is an important part of festival traditions, somewhat like Thanksgiving in the United States. (For more traditions, check out a recent series in the English-language version of China Daily. (http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/2017-01/22/content_28023167.htm). In previous blog posts, I’ve written about personal experiences of living in China during two different sets of New Year’s festivities, and also about the meanings of various zodiac years. (Spring Festival in LipuBeasts of the Chinese Zodiac, More New Year…

As China’s economy has developed and more and more Chinese families have spread out geographically, this period of the year has also become known for the largest human migration on the planet. In 2017, nearly 3 billion trips are expected to be taken by Chinese in, from, or to China during the period between January 13 and February 21. People will travel by automobile, motorcycle, train, plane, boat or any other way possible. A feature in a recent edition of China Daily chronicled the journey of one migrant worker who was going home by bicycle. He’d left his temporary restaurant job in Shanghai on January 12 for Chongqing, a distance of over 1,000 miles. He expects to make it home by January 27, New Year’s Eve.     

Different employers, schools, and institutions in China vary somewhat on the timing and length of holiday break awarded for this most important festival of the Chinese calendar, but nearly everyone gets at least a week of time off. China has nearly 280 million migrant workers, typically young adults who’ve left their birthplaces in rural areas to seek better job opportunities in China’s burgeoning cities but want to get home to visit family at Spring Festival, as it’s called in China. 

Wealthier Chinese families increasingly use this time to travel internationally. According to an online travel service, Chinese will travel to 174 destinations outside mainland China during the holiday period. Within China, favorite spots include the tropical tourist city of Sanya, Hainan, dubbed “the Hawaii of China.” Although Sanya flight and hotel prices peak during the holiday, winter-weary travelers from colder parts of China still flock here to swim, snorkel, or just lie on the beach in the sunshine.  

Within the U.S., there will be Chinese New Year celebrations in many major cities, including the dowager of all celebrations—an annual parade and festival in San Francisco that has been held since the 1860’s.  Disneyland in Anaheim, California will hold two full weeks of celebrations, hosted by cartoon figure Mulan, plus Mickey and Minnie Mouse in Chinese costumes. For sheer glitz, it will be difficult to beat Las Vegas, where several hotels are vying for the most extravagant display. Lunar New Year parades will also be held in Washington, D.C. on January 29; in Chicago on February 5; and in Orlando, Florida, on February 11.

So, wherever and whenever you choose to celebrate, Happy Year of the Rooster!  Some of your Chinese friends may appreciate a Mandarin Happy New Year greeting(pronounced roughly shin-nyen how):  Xinnian Hao !


Bucolic Dystopia

Bucolic Dystopia    —by Jinny Batterson

My sister’s small farm suffered last summer.
Rains came in torrents, or not at all.
Temperatures soared; tempers frayed.
The cow calved, then keeled over dead–
Likely from lack of calcium, the vet said, afterwards. 

When the hail hit in staccato bursts, as wind from
A blackened sky whipped at the roof,
Light and delight both seemed extinguished.
After a storm, it was impossible not to track
Mud indoors. In dry times, dust seeped everywhere.

In September, I visited my usually sunny sister.
Her in-person mantra belied the optimistic message
On her answering machine. Rather than talk of
Nature’s beauty, bounty, and balance, she
Spoke instead of dark, dirt, and death. 

Surrounding market towns that once had
Boomed with mills and small factories were
Struggling.  Good-paying jobs were being
Replaced by robots, or else leaving for
Places with lower costs and laxer rules.

A small living was still possible through tourism.
Soft-skinned visitors from more urban areas
Came seeking a quieter, simpler existence.
For short stretches, local inns and B&B’s could
Simulate the slower, muted rhythms of earlier rural life.

It was tempting to blame some distant bureaucrat,
A too-rigid regulation, an absent fat cat,
For the ongoing distress, to look to some bullying
Billionaire to fix things and bring back prosperity.
Meanwhile, glaciers, whole ice sheets, dissolved.

We all share responsibility for the mess we’ve
Created.  A colleague whose childhood farmstead
Now sprouted McMansions lamented: “You can’t eat money.”
The Gospels admonish: “What will it profit a person to
Gain the whole world, but lose his or her own soul?” 

Questions both broader and deeper than the dyslexia
Of mixing up our b’s and d’s arise: Can we find the
Will to bring forth more beauty, bounty and balance
Without denying that dark, dirt, and death
Will also always be part of the mix?