Happily Sometimes After

Our wedding anniversary falls in early spring.
Some years, we celebrate elaborately.
This year, not so much, as covid threats
Recede slightly and other health 
Concerns of aging reemerge.

When we wed, a very long time ago,
Both external and internal wars
Raged–Southeast Asia, the Middle East,
Race and gender discord. Maybe
Not so very different from now.

We agreed then, only half jokingly, to hold our
Marriage as an informal contract, renewable
Every three years. It seemed such a
Long interval, when we started out.

Our first three years included job changes
And a geographical move. The next three,
More moves, unemployment, marital strife.
Somehow, we managed to stabilize
Just before the six year mark.

Our third contract period involved
Adding two lovely, lively children to the mix.
Family life got more complex after that.
Lots of growth, outer and inner, too. 

One interval, we struggled mightily to balance
Family commitments and career aspirations.
For two years, we alternated lengthy separations
With multi-thousand-mile commutes, as one of
Us completed an international assignment.

By now we’ve passed the big five-oh. More and more of
Our cohort are becoming single by death rather than divorce.
We worry less about small stuff, practice being gentle
With ourselves while attempting to coach
The next generations equally gently.

We continue to live happiiy sometimes after.   

Jinny on her long-ago wedding day

 

The Politics of Human Reproduction

As a post-menopausal woman, I’m no longer directly impacted by the twists and turns of abortion debates and legislation. During my fertile years, I was privileged to live in areas where reliable contraception was available and reproductive options were improving. I was blessed with two much-wanted, much-loved children and a long-term partner who helped provide both material and emotional support as we navigated the great adventure of parenting. Once our children were past their most vulnerable years, I chose to end my fertility early, in part to avoid overpopulating an already human-crowded planet. 

Therefore my initial strong reaction to coverage of the “fetal heartbeat bill” passed recently in neighboring South Carolina surprised me. This particular fight has long since been joined by still-fertile women. I have no direct interest. Why, then, did a still photo of South Carolina governor Henry Dargan McMaster, an older somewhat sanctimonious male, white, signing South Carolina’s Senate Bill 1 while surrounded by other mostly older men, mostly white, plus a few women, rankle me so? On reflection, I suspect it’s a combination of personal and societal history.

Until after I was grown and married, I had little notion what abortion was. After a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalized abortions under certain circumstances, protracted legal and political battles erupted. Political candidates and office holders were sometimes judged primarily or solely based on their stance on this one issue. Through decades of debate, I’ve been exposed to lots of “pro-life”  and “pro-choice” publicity. Arguments at both extremes disturb me. I lean toward a “pro-choice” stance, but remember, too, the moral ambiguity captured in author Gwendolyn Brooks’ haunting 1945 poem “The Mother” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43309/the-mother-56d2220767a02). 

In early 1975, when my husband dropped me off to get a pregnancy test at a women’s health clinic, to confirm what we both hoped would be true, I had to walk a gauntlet of anti-abortion protesters shouting, waving signs, and thrusting literature into my hands about the sanctity of all life. It did not seem to occur to these zealots that a women’s health clinic might perform services other than abortions. Their brochures contained images of a generic early-term fetus. In decades since, while driving through parts of the U.S. South, I’ve seen similar fetal images on huge roadside billboards. One even advertised a “pro-life registrar of wills.”

The particular legislation just passed in South Carolina does not directly penalize women seeking abortions, but makes performing an abortion after a “detectable heartbeat” (typically between 6 and 8 weeks of gestation) a felony, with possible hefty fines and up to two years of jail time. The South Carolina bill is among a number of recent bills, most enacted in poorer Southern states, circumscribing legal abortions to the point that they become nearly inaccessible to poor and at-risk women.

Globally, both the incidence of abortion and the legal restrictions placed on it have been declining in recent years, with only five countries (El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Chile, and Malta) placing total or near-total bans on the procedure. Between 1994 and 2014, the incidence of abortion in industrialized countries declined 19%. Rates of abortion are roughly comparable worldwide, whatever a particular nation’s abortion policy—estimated at between 34 and 37 per thousand women annually. (For more information, see https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(16)30380-4.pdf). What differs markedly are the rates of maternal injury and death resulting from unsafe abortions (see https://www.who.int/health-topics/abortion#tab=tab_2). 

What has often non-plussed me about the abortion debate, in the U.S. and globally, is how much it tries to compartmentalize the period of gestation, making it ostensibly separate from the periods before and after a pregnancy. Though alternative pregnancy options such as surrogacy, in vitro fertilization, and even transgender pregnancy are becoming more available in industrialized countries (though hugely expensive), the proportion of such pregnancies is small. The vast majority of fetuses are the result of male/female intercourse. 

What about the fathers-to-be? What are their roles? What legislation impacts them? More to the point, once a baby is born, what support is provided by someone other than the mother, be it another family member or an institution? We can too often seem lax in our efforts to provide the “village” it takes to raise a child. In 2021, I can find myself  juxtaposing fetal images with images of starving children in war-torn Yemen, their heads disproportionately large in comparison to their shriveled bodies (https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-01-04/yemeni-boy-ravaged-by-hunger-weighs-7-kg).

On this International Women’s Day, I can applaud some of the improvements made in fetal, maternal, and child health globally. I can honor SC Governor McMaster’s wife and daughter. I can listen to the beating of my own heart. I can honor women’s choices around the issue of childbearing, while I hope and work for a society that concentrates less on what happens inside the womb and more on what happens in the world into which babies are born. 

The Longest Year

This day last year, March 3, 2020, marked the first reported cases of covid here in North Carolina. It was also the day of our presidential primary. As of today, we’ve logged over 11,000 covid-related deaths in our state, over half a million in our country. We have a different President, after an election process fraught with tension and followed by an insurrection. It seems like a very long year. 

As the pandemic began to impact us, we were told at first not to wear face masks. Hospitals and health workers were short of personal protective gear, so any available supplies were needed for them. Starting March 10, 2020, North Carolina’s governor began issuing a whole string of executive orders aimed at containing or mitigating the spread of the virus. A “stay at home” phase began March 30. Executive Order 121 enjoined residents “to stay at home except to visit essential businesses, to exercise outdoors or to help a family member. Specifically, the order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and directs everyone to physically stay at least 6 feet apart from others.” Schools had closed. Parents and teachers scrambled to come up with alternative child care arrangements and virtual learning plans. Stores sold out of paper goods. Small businesses and communities of color were among the worst impacted. 

Nationally, our then-President predicted that the virus would disappear on its own. Locally, most social, religious and philanthropic groups canceled in-person meetings and began congregating in virtual spaces. Public service announcements advised us to “flatten the curve,” so that caseload spikes did not overwhelm the health care system. As spring limped toward summer, cases seemed to dip, then surge, then dip, then surge again in mind-numbing seesaws. Our regional newspaper printed the statistics of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths along the edge of its front page, a sort of grisly “box score.” Whether or not to hold in-person political rallies became a political issue of its own.  

If it was an uneasy summer for all, it was especially trying for those impacted by extra-judicial police killings captured on mobile phone video. Protests erupted across the nation and around the world. Through it all, even mask wearing got politicized. 

Fall brought additional complications, as jurisdictions tried to come up with safe yet inclusive ways to hold an election during a pandemic. Non-partisan election workers needed to be hired, trained, retrained, and/or retained as procedures changed, election boards jockeyed for adequate protective equipment and supplies, and the elder-skewed workforce from prior elections debated whether to risk possible infection by working in 2020. By election day, voter participation rates had surpassed records going back over a century. In our county, the proportion of absentee ballots quadrupled. 

It took what seemed like forever to ascertain a winner of the presidential race, amid delayed counts, recounts, and multitudes of court cases. The loser refused to concede, opting instead to allege massive voter fraud, unsubstantiated by anything other than his massively distorted ego. Thousands of his most avid supporters came to Washington D.C. on January 6. After he addressed a rally near the White House, some of them went to the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the certification of electoral college results. A few nearly succeeded. Their actions continue to roil our politics, just as the pandemic is starting to be dented by more widespread vaccinations and better compliance with public health measures, just as financial relief for the neediest works its way through Congress. 

It’s my fervent prayer that the next twelve months will seem less endless than the preceding twelve, that some of the underlying societal ills laid bare by the pandemic will be tackled with more than lip service, and that our understanding of our dependence on the natural world will deepen. A small answer and blessing blooms in a tree well near our townhouse—this year’s first daffodils. 

First daffodils, spring 2021

What’s in a Title (um, Prefix)

Recently I’ve been corresponding with my elected national legislators on a more frequent basis than previously. We’re living through rather fraught times. Some of what I have to say, I believe, may be pertinent to getting ourselves through our multiple crises. Some of the time, I cut, paste and customize verbiage that’s been suggested by one of the many citizen activist groups I belong to. Other times, I compose an individual message. 

As someone with reliable internet access and an email account, I can most quickly communicate my views via email—both my North Carolina senators and the representative for my district in the U.S. House have email portals for receiving my missives electronically. The forms they’ve set up begin with basic information about who I am, starting with “Prefix,” (previously known as “Title.”)  There are various choice options, different for each of the national legislators who represent me.

If I write to Senator Burr, I have nine options as a non-military citizen, or over 100 if I am active-duty military. The first available option is “Mr.,” followed in sequence by “Ms.”, “Mrs.”, “Professor”, “Dr.”, “Father”, “Sister”, “Rabbi”, then “Reverend.” For those in the military, the options are alphabetical by service branch (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy) then in descending order of rank within each branch.  

Senator Tillis’s connection page has more options, but also starts with “Mr.” Among the alternatives that he includes are multiple options for couples, starting with “Mr. and Mrs.” and then branching out into “Mr. and Mr.” and “Mrs. and Mrs.” Multiple variations begin with “Dr.”: “Dr. and Dr.”, “Dr. and Mr.”, “Dr. and Mrs.”. Religious leaders may choose from “Reverend,” “Sister,” “Pastor,” or “Rabbi.” Three options indicate possible political associations: “The Honorable,” “Representative,” and “Senator.” Then there are military prefixes, mostly the same and in the same sequence as those for Senator Burr.  

Representative Ross’s list is simpler and shorter, beginning with “Ms.” Given my gender and my political preferences, I find her options somewhat more to my liking. Other choices include “Miss.” (probably not an abbreviation for “Mississippi”), “Mrs.”, “Mr.”, “Mr. and Mrs.”, “Rev.”, “Dr.”, “The Honorable,” and “Rabbi.” Occasionally I’ve wondered whether all the legislators might include a choice of “Other,” with a blank for specifying my preferred prefix, at this point something like “slightly-bemused-yet-still-hopeful-human.” 

So far, I’ve gotten written or emailed responses to nearly every message I’ve sent. Many are explanations of why the legislator disagrees with my views or assessment. All have used respectful language, if they can seem from my perspective to be slightly condescending. 

Instead of using email, I sometimes revert to postal mail, having heard at some point that such “snail mail” was more likely to get read by a congressional staffer, rather than just put into an appropriate category for a standardized response, especially if sent to a district office rather than to Washington, D.C. The most recent response to one of these letters actually had a staffer’s initials plus the legislator’s. Progress?  

Beyond the incentive to have my thoughts-on-paper read, though, there’s a piece of sending a hand-addressed letter to my legislators that I cannot duplicate via email—I get to assign a title to the addressee. My hope is that the legislator and/or his/her staffer will pay attention to that prefix: “The Honorable.”   

Unprece(si)dented

Unprece(si)dented    —by Jinny Batterson

(Meditations on this 2021 edition of “Presidents’ Day”) 

It’s been a couple of weeks now since 45 left D.C.
I’m still not sure whether it’s safe to breathe.
This was a President who associated America with his brand,
Singed most forcefully into those least able to resist.

Early in life, he grew to resent others, so during
His term, he fueled resentments among us, gambling
That he could incite us to hate each other, rather than see
Through his redundant rhetoric of distraction.

In the farce of incompetent governance, he played his
Role to a T. Now he sulks, snarls and plays golf
At his crumbling Florida palace-by-the-sea,
As the Atlantic laps ever closer and his neighbors protest.

My coming of age in the 1960’s was punctuated by
Political assassinations–a President, a candidate,
Multiple civil rights leaders. I came partially to absorb
A mantra of the era’s aftermath: “Need leaders less.”

I do not believe we must do without leadership, but rather
That we each need to assume some small part of its
Mantle, leading from where we are. That way, we may
Be able to climb out from this slough of despond

And disunity, to continue the hard, joyous, needful
Work of reworking democracy for those coming after,
Many who know already about the hills we must climb. We can
And will rise. We will not subside into the once-shining sea. 

 

The Importance of Invitations

A good many years ago, when my husband and I were winter-housebound by young children rather than by a pandemic, we got the idea for a midwinter party: a Groundhog Day Open House. Back then, it was perfectly all right to invite large numbers of people to come visit us indoors. Most years, I’d spend part of January coming up with an invitations list in consultation with Jim, then use whatever technology and tools were handy to write out or print up invitations and distribute them. 

Over the years, our celebration evolved and moved as our children grew and we relocated multiple times. I can’t remember a year when all our invitees showed up. Among the most memorable years so far was the year we had a mammoth snow and ice storm that dumped 22 inches of frozen precipitation on our area the day of the party. As the white stuff deepened, some people phoned to express their regrets. Most just assumed we would understand why they hadn’t come. Our lone party participant was a next door neighbor, then seven months pregnant, who carefully waddled across our snowy front yards. The three of us sat in front of the wood stove, munching snacks and swapping stories far into the evening.  

After we’d spent a first Chinese New Year in China (where it’s mostly called Spring Festival), we’d sometimes incorporate an Asian New Year component to our festivities, as the two holidays can fall fairly close together. Groundhog’s Day, lest anyone forget, falls each year on February 2. This year’s lunar new year is being celebrated in many parts of Asia, with today, February 12, marking the first day of the Year of the Ox. Last weekend, friends and family checked in via an online video conferencing app to this year’s joint “virtual gathering” celebration.

Lately I’ve begun to think about the importance of invitations and the value of an honest invitation. Having participated sometimes in “command occasions,” I think it’s regrettable when “invitations” are thinly veiled coercion. It also seems to me counterproductive to have invitations serve mostly as a means of obtaining social prestige—“only the best people were there.”  

I’m gradually learning to avoid obsessing about turned-down invitations, especially as the virtual world explodes into more online invitations than I can possibly accept. The best invitations, it seems to me, are open conduits between the inviter and the invitee. Neither needs feel bad about an invitation that’s turned down. Neither party is more important than the other. Both can benefit from a deeper relationship, if the invitation suits, and from feeling valued, even if it doesn’t. What is important is the strengthened communication the invitation enables. 

It can be hard for those of us who gather energy from in-person interactions to “wait out” our current relative isolation. Today where I live it’s rainy, a cold, soggy rain that drips from clouds just a smidge above freezing. Not a good day for outdoor interactions, the main way I meet people these days. The news, through whatever medium, is nearly as dreary as the weather.  So I’m inviting myself to most of a day in a comfortable armchair, drinking hot cocoa and perusing a good book. Sometimes, inviting ourselves to quiet contemplation can be the most important invitation of all.   

Trees Resting

Trees Resting  —by Jinny Batterson

Behind our townhouse is a strip of woodland,
Too narrow and too steep to build on.

In warm seasons, its leafy expanse helps mute
The noise of the car and truck traffic beyond,
Helps disguise the bareness of our increasingly
Urban former small town.

In warm seasons, it diminishes the din of earth movers
Destroying woodlands a little further away–
Woodlands a little wider, less steep– gouging space
For more townhouses, apartments, or condos.

In this season, though, most of the leaves are gone,
Leaving just fringes of scrub pines drinking in
The diminished sunlight, leaving the dormant beech
To let last year’s bleached remnants flutter in the wind.

In this season, I hear and see the traffic,
Grate at the incessant “beep, beep, beep”
Of construction equipment nearby.

In this season, the trees are resting, saving up sap,
Rooting deeper in advance of the
Next set of warm seasons, when
Their new growth may again green the hillsides.

In this novel season of pandemic-enforced rest,
My dreams are sometimes dark.
On especially noisy days, I imagine a world
Without cars or condos or humans,
Only trees, resting.

                                              Trees resting

Our Avocado Kitchen

 

The house where we mostly raised our children was an older two-story dwelling that had likely had several owners before us. We’d bought it pre-children, thrilled by its roominess and by its relatively low price. Its exterior stucco was a light green, with darker green trim on its porches and windows. The colors fit well with the shade trees lining our narrow, one-way street. What was less thrilling was the color of its interior paint. Nearly every room was a dull, sickly looking green. Perhaps that shade of paint had been on sale when the prior owners were preparing the house to sell, or maybe they had some leftover mixture after the exterior was painted? We never got to ask. 

We quickly set about redecorating to colors we found more pleasing. By the time our older child was born, we’d stripped both the paint and the wallpaper under it from most rooms in the house. The dining room became a shade of light blue, the living room even paler. A couple of the bedrooms got “photo walls” of spectacular scenery. The nursery had kid-themed wallpaper. I sewed curtains. 

The room we left most nearly “as is” was the kitchen, where counters, sink, moldings, and a walk-in pantry broke the lines of the drab green. Our refrigerator, though, was the “avocado green”  shade popular during the 1970’s and 80’s. I don’t remember whether the fridge had come with the house, or if we purchased it at an appliance store. Over time, it developed a slight list, so that to close its door securely you had to kick the bottom. (A habit we had to break when we eventually moved to a different house and bought a non-tilting fridge.)  

The children have long since grown and set up housekeeping on their own. Their decorating tastes differ from ours, but to my knowledge, neither has ever painted a room avocado green. In retirement, we live in a townhouse with muted colors inside and out. An older friend who’s lived in this area most of his life characterizes our suburban milieu as “beigeville.” 

Then, a few years ago, we succumbed to the dietary craze for avocados—on salads, on toast, as garnishes. The pits were nearly indestructible, as I found after they’d aged for months in our backyard compost bins. Curious for alternatives, I checked online for how to sprout an avocado pit. After several tries, I got one to put down a smallish root, then planted it in a ceramic pot, where it spent warm weather on our back deck, getting lots of sun, and enough water to keep it happy. We’d bring it indoors in cold weather, since our winter climate so far freezes too hard and too often for avocados. It was happiest in our south-facing kitchen window. By its third autumn, the avocado looked more like a small tree. It had grown so tall that we trimmed its main stem before bringing it indoors. We added a stake to its now-larger pot to encourage it to grow straight. Like the fridge we used to have, though, it too has developed a slight list. 

This winter, our avocado tree has sprouted lots of auxiliary branches, with a spread that is encroaching ever more severely into our person-and-a-half kitchen. We’re not sure how much longer we can keep it. Do any of you in central North Carolina hanker for your very own kitchen avocado, with the transport to move it and enough indoor space to keep it happy for cold seasons to come?

avocado reaching for the sun

Our crowded kitchen

The Rest of the Story

The late 1960’s were a turbulent time, somewhat like the period we’re living through now. Starting in 1965, I attended a small liberal arts college in a mid-sized Virginia city. Through studies and socializing, I was exposed to professors and fellow students with a variety of backgrounds and opinions, some quite different from the prevailing views in the small Maryland town where I’d spent my first 18 years. Off campus in our college town, though, prevailing sentiments were every bit as conservative as those I’d grown up with. 

Sometimes as a break from my studies, I listened briefly to a local radio station. Usually I was just trying to catch a local weather report, but I often wound up exposed to all or part of a nationally syndicated news broadcast by radio announcer Paul Harvey (Aurandt). I don’t remember much specific content from Paul Harvey’s broadcasts, but I recall a general tone. In a 2009 obituary, his style was characterized as valuing “rugged individualism, love of God and country, and the fundamental decency of ordinary people.” Through my newly expanded collegiate lens, it seemed to me that Harvey was leaving out huge parts of the news—events and perspectives that did not coincide with his spin. I was learning of historic lynchings, seeing housing and employment discrimination firsthand, experiencing the escalation of the Vietnam war, noting the routine harrassment of minorities and women. None of this seemed fundamentally decent. I began to question the premises of Harvey’s perspective.  

A segment I often caught before the weather forecast was “The Rest of the Story,” typically a relatively unknown part of the life story of a famous person. One especially widely heard segment is about a high school dropout who applied in his early 20’s for an entry level job at the Swiss patent office and nearly didn’t get it. Not until the end of the segment are we told that “Al” may have suffered early life failures, but eventually went on to become world-famous as theoretical physicist Albert Einstein  

(for a rebroadcast, listen to https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2v3sh1).  Part of the rest of Paul Harvey’s life story was a February, 1951 trespass onto the grounds of government classified research agency Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago for which he was never charged.  

These days I have a schizoid relationship with media. I need to stay informed; too often a media broadcast or internet post leaves me inflamed instead. It is very difficult to follow any news source for long without buying into some of its inherent biases. Images of a violent mob storming the U.S. Capitol are hard to ignore or stay indifferent to. Is there a rest of the story? Temporarily putting aside the role of Mr. Trump, what were the varying motivations that led some to become violent, others to remain as bystanders, and most of America’s population to stay away? Is there anything to be learned from the life histories of those who demonstrated, those who desecrated, those who tried to defuse tensions, those who attempted to report live as events unfolded? 

Few of the reports I’ve heard yet can provide much insight. Too often we get competing narratives that emphasize conflicting aspects of reality. About the only commonality seems to be that all of us are tense. 

We may never know the whole story. Imperfect, incomplete knowledge is part of the human condition. However, if we listen more and speak less, do the messy work of decoupling legitimate grievances from scapegoating and vengeance, insist on both accountability and mercy, we may learn more of the rest of the story.    

McCarthy’s Ghost, Slavery’s Ghosts, Learning All the Verses

I write this on the morning of January 7, 2021, after a 24 hours that tried American democracy in ways not seen for a while. Our electoral system has survived a challenge. Once an unruly mob was finally cleared from the U.S. Capitol, both houses of the U.S. Congress debated and then certified the electoral victory of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. to become the 46th President of the United States. However, challenges remain. Amid a global pandemic, social problems abound. The reputation of the U.S.A. as a beacon of democracy has been badly tarnished, if not destroyed.

I was born into a United States of America reeling from World War II plus the dawn of the nuclear age. My childhood was spent in the shadow of possible thermonuclear war. Our family lived close to Washington D.C.  A nuclear attack on the U.S. capital city would lead to our deaths—from the blast itself or more slowly from radiation poisoning. Nuclear danger from our postwar rival, the communist Soviet Union (USSR), was real but hard to gauge.

Postwar tensions had helped change the make-up of the U.S. Congress. During the early 1950’s, a first-term Senator from Wisconsin made headlines about the alleged presence of “Communist infiltrators” in American government and media. Joseph R. McCarthy’s initial list of possible infiltrators and spies grew, leading to the blacklisting of many left-leaning writers, artists and civil libertarians. In early 1954, hearings about McCarthy’s attempted meddling in the U.S. Army were broadcast on television, a TV first. The senator was shown, per multiple sources, as “bullying, reckless, and dishonest.” (See partial transcript, including Army Special Counsel Welch’s “Have you no sense of decency?” quote at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6444/).  In retrospect, we realize that the distortions introduced by McCarthy made it more difficult to distinguish actual threats from malicious character assassination and misinformation. Later in 1954, McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate. Although he remained in office, his influence waned. He died of liver failure in 1957. 

One of McCarthy’s chief advisors, Roy Cohn, went on to mentor real estate developer and 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, a master at social media. We still live with McCarthy’s ghost. Late yesterday, two prominent social media outlets, Facebook and Twitter, belatedly and temporarily deactivated Mr. Trump’s accounts. His posts had helped incite what became a full-blown riot and assault on the United States Capitol. He continued to spread false allegations about the election’s outcome.

Our country’s Declaration of Independence proclaims as self-evident that “all (men) are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We are taught from an early age to revere this founding document. What we are not taught, or taught only much later, is that about a third of the signers of the Declaration, including coauthor Thomas Jefferson, were slaveholders. 

We still live with slavery’s ghosts. The inherent contradiction between professed equality and the myth of white supremacy poisons our civic life. This past summer, widespread multiracial demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice highlighted flaws in our criminal justice system. Since the outbreak of covid-19 related illnesses in the U.S., disparities in their impacts on communities of color have spotlighted lingering health and economic imbalances. Our education system’s attempts to adapt to remote learning further implicates the divides we’ve created in information access.

 I was brought up in a mainline Protestant congregation, taught the importance of loving our neighbors and ourselves. During the 1950’s at our small stone church, I was also exposed to lots of MAGA-style American exceptionalism and triumphalism. We frequently sang a hymn that I grew to dislike as I became a young woman, though its ghosts persist. It seemed sexist and militaristic and badly out of date:

Lead on, O King Eternal,
the day of march has come;
henceforth in fields of conquest,
thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation
thy faith has made us strong;
and now, O King eternal,
we lift our battle song.

(In my initial interpretation, the third verse, about crowns and conquest and a mighty God,  seemed also to revert to militaristic themes.) 

What I much preferred was the second verse:

Lead on, O King eternal,
till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
and holiness shall whisper
the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.

This morning I delved into the origins and evolution of this hymn. The lyric was composed as part of a seminary graduation ceremony, a rousing send-off for newly minted ministers. Ernest W. Shurtleff, its author, was among the graduates from Andover Theological Seminary in 1887. He served several American congregations before moving to Europe in 1905. From 1906 until the start of World War I, he was director of student activities at a Paris school. He then did war relief work in France until his death in Paris in 1917. Subsequent variations of the hymn’s lyric have adopted more inclusive language, such as one referring to the Biblical story of the exodus and “O Cloud of Presence.”  More recent interpretations make clearer that the “battles” Shurtleff envisioned were spiritual rather than temporal. (See a longer explanation in https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/articles/history-of-hymns-lead-on-o-king-eternal.)  

The inscription on Shurtleff’s tombstone ends with this summation: 

The path of the just is
as the shining light.

May we follow this light through whatever darkness lies ahead. May we react to yesterday’s travesties with outrage, yes, but also with deeds of love and mercy toward our neighbors and ourselves.