About Nancy Werking Poling

Author of women's fiction, blogger on current events and women's experience

I worry about Korea

No, I haven’t forgotten my Korean friends. I daily fear for their safety. Yet merely saying that I am angry at Donald Trump for increasing their danger doesn’t seem adequate.

Besides, I’m distracted. Almost daily the president draws me into a new worry by saying, Tweeting, or doing something insensitive or abusive. Before I have time to write my concerns about Korea, he’s taken me in another direction.

With an attention-challenged president our population responds in like manner. One day I worry about Korea, the next day about young African American men, the next about Dreamers, the next about Puerto Ricans, even—I still can’t believe this—I worry about football players. Today we mourn the loss of life in Las Vegas. Tomorrow? Trump seems intent on keeping us off kilter. That way we don’t have time to criticize him in a coherent manner.

Yet I’m trying, for a moment, to focus on my concerns for Korea.

I have fond memories of the country and its people. Some I met when they studied here in the U.S.. Others I learned to know when my husband twice taught a semester at Yonsei University in Seoul. I hesitate to make generalizations about any group of people. I will say, though, that Koreans I have known are earnest, persevering, passionate, and hospitable. If cultural ways become embedded in the genes, it’s likely that their relatives to the north, whom I have not met, share those qualities.

Donald Trump is obviously unaware of history and cultural differences. Because Korea is a small country (north and south) its destiny has been at the whims of others. Still fresh in people’s memory is the brutal Japanese occupation of the peninsula and the civil war that ravaged the entire country, especially the north, which the U.S. carpet bombed. There is no reason to believe that Kim, if he feels threatened, will not send missiles to Seoul, a city of nearly 10 million people and a mere 35 miles from the border. Trump seems to believe that victory (his personal victory over Kim) will come via bullying on Twitter.

Why aren’t Americans saying more about this? Partly because we daily have something new to react to. A new Tweet, a hurricane, a gun massacre. Many of us do care but we feel helpless. That’s how tyranny becomes implanted, isn’t it?

 

 

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A united work force

(Excerpt from Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987)

1940 or ‘41

Daniel often paused outside International Harvester gates at the end of his shift to listen to Jack Carpenter, a union organizer from Chicago. Black metal lunch pails in hand, weary men congregated, a few, like Daniel, clustering around Carpenter. Most, though, lurked in the background lest they be identified as opposed to management. The company’s goal was to make as much money as it could, Carpenter said, and it didn’t give a hoot about the workers. By uniting, organizing a union, the workers could unshackle themselves from the absolute control the company had over them.

There was little doubt in the men’s minds that Carpenter was right. Factory laborers had to work six days a week with no paid vacations, no paid holidays, and no benefits. Anyone unfortunate enough to get sick was quickly replaced by someone who was healthy. Conditions at the plant were hazardous, particularly in the foundry, where men worked with molten hot iron, and out on the tracks, where they did back-breaking tasks without the help of machinery. Workers were often severely burned or injured. Sometimes the company hired a new man, and a month later, without giving any reason, fired an employee who had been on the job five years. There was nowhere to go for redress. Wartime production had not yet begun, and the fact that people still desperately needed jobs made them subject to the whims of business.

At first Daniel didn’t approve of unions, but every day, when he got off work, exhausted and covered with grime, he couldn’t help but think that a united work force was the only means to better conditions and better pay.

Daniel: “Here I was, a college graduate with little hope of using my skills or reaching my potential. As long as laborers were afraid to organize, they were powerless. Besides, if I joined the union, what did I have to lose?”

On a Sunday afternoon in late spring, four workers from Harvester met with Carpenter. Three weeks and four meetings later the smoke-filled room was packed, mostly with men but also with a few women. Sitting on kitchen chairs, footstools, and the floor, they strategized into the early morning hours about organizing a local. In this setting a person’s color wasn’t as important as what he or she could contribute to the cause.

The Richmond plant was the first Harvester plant to organize. Aware that if one factory unionized others would follow, the company tried to frighten and isolate leaders.

Calling the strike in ‘41 was risky. The union was new and still unsure how much support it had among the workers. Its representatives spent hours at the negotiation table, trying to reach a contract with management, but couldn’t get anywhere. Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon union leadership informed Harvester that a vote would be taken that night and a strike was inevitable.

 

(Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987) is the story of an independent white woman, a talented black man, and the times in which these two remarkable people lived. The book is available wherever books are sold.)

After the Flood (excerpt from “Survival,” in HAD EVE COME FIRST AND JONAH BEEN A WOMAN)

Once the waters had receded and the face of the earth was dry. Nochat went from the ark, she and her children and grandchildren. And every pair of animals: the ferrets and gazelles, the ibex and asps, all left the ark.

When every animal had crept or leaped or flown to the north, the south, the east, or west, Nochat looked at the desolation around her and felt a great emptiness. Nothing she had known remained. She sat upon the ground, rested her head against her arms, and wept.

After a while she lifted her face and called out to God, “What kind of mother are you, that you would strangle your own child because it is willful? What kind of God are you that you would create animals as lovely as gazelles, as clever as foxes, as playful as goats, then kill them? What kind of God creates beautiful trees and flowers then destroys them?”

From nearby came the faint sound of weeping. The weeping became loud sobs. Then a haunting keen pierced the stillness of the desolate landscape.

“What have I done?” Nochat heard God wail. “What have I done?”

Nochat rose and approached Creator. Put her arms around God. Let God cry against her breast.

“I convinced myself that my rebellious children deserved my wrath. In the beginning I had such hopes and dreams, imagining everything to stay as it was. But I lost control of my children, and when I gazed upon all I had created, I decided it no longer had any value.”

God said nothing for a while, simply sat there nestled against Nochat’s breast, heaving sobs of such immenseness that only God can heave.

“It is as if I have cut off my own breast,” she cried out, “plunged a knife into my own heart. I now see that to destroy what I created was to destroy part of myself.”

For days the two of them remained in that place, God regretting the devastation she had wrought, Nochat lamenting the loss of the earth and people and animals she had loved.

One day God heaved a sigh and said, “Though my mourning will never cease, it is time for me to set about recreating. But first, Nochat, I will make a promise. I promise you and your descendents and every living creature that has come to this place on the ark, I promise that I will never again release the waters to destroy the earth by flood.”

“After all the destruction you have wrought, how am I to believe you?”

“This will be a sign of my covenant. I will place a colorful bow in the sky. When you look upon it, you will be reminded that you do not need to fear my wrath. Yes, the bow will be a sign of the covenant between us.”

And at that Nochat went to get the family’s mildewed garments out of the ark, so that she might spread them in the sun.

God set about rebuilding the earth.

(HAD EVE COME FIRST AND JONAH BEEN A WOMAN, by Nancy Werking Poling, published by Wipf & Stock, 2010. Available in paperback and on Kindle.)

COMMENT by the author, considering the devastation Harvey caused: I don’t believe God caused this disaster. Surely she weeps over the people’s suffering and the massive destruction.

Thoughts about Confederate monuments

I pulled out a tissue at each box placed in the dimly-lit room. The sounds of sniffling surrounded me. The exhibit at The Rooms—a St. John’s, Newfoundland, museum—used artifacts, letters, and families’ remembrances to tell the story of the Caribou Regiment. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1916, World War I), the Caribou engaged the enemy at Beaumont-Hamel. As part of the British Empire, Newfoundland sent 780 men into that battle. The next morning 68 survivors reported for roll call. A hundred years later the loss of a generation of men remains a deep sorrow in Newfoundlanders’ collective memory.

A young German woman was staying at the same B & B as my husband and I. What would she think of the exhibit at The Rooms, I wondered, her ancestors having been the enemy? Had her great-grandparents also mourned the death of a brother, a father?

The victors of war have permission to publicly grieve our fallen. We have symbols and monuments, holidays even. How do heirs of those who fought for unjust causes deal with their grief? How do they reconcile sins of the past with a profound sense of having lost thousands, if not millions, of lives?

My husband’s great-uncle fought for the Confederacy and at 18 died of dysentery as a prisoner of war. We know little about him. Like many on both sides of the Civil War, he was probably a farm boy who had never killed anything other than animals for food.

Isn’t that who fights most wars? Young men and women, some barely adults. They are conscripted, indoctrinated, and sent to kill an enemy designated by the powerful. In the 1860s owners of large plantations bought and sold human beings, worked them mercilessly to increase the owners’ wealth. Seeing their way of life threatened, prosperous slave holders sent young men who had nothing to gain to fight their, the land owners’, war.

I return to my earlier question: How do descendants of those who fought for unjust causes deal with a grief that time does not heal?

I’m not defending the Confederacy. Neither do I want to defend our “heritage.” Our white Southern heritage is embroiled with enslavement, Jim Crow laws, lynching. The list of atrocities is endless.

As we tackle the Confederate monument controversy, we need to think creatively. Perhaps we can find a way to grieve the deaths of young farmer-soldiers, denounce the treason of the region’s political and military leaders, and build monuments that recognize the contributions of slave ancestors of African Americans.

 

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

Since Charlottesville, #2

As you may recall from my previous post, I’ve come out of the closet.

I have publicly come out as an angry old white lady. Our culture mocks old people: our hearing losses, our driving habits. A woman publicly expressing anger? It’s social suicide. Combine “angry,” “old,” and “lady.” What is more worthy of parody? Let me thrash my cane about and grumble about the younger generation. I’m supposed to be either the nurturing grandmother or a boomer who likes sailing and golfing and searches dating sites for a fun-loving mate.

Since events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the weekend of August 13 and 14, I’ve seen pictures of people wearing t-shirts with the slogan, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Ever since Donald Trump appeared on the scene, I’ve been outraged. Outraged by his mocking primary opponents, by his obvious narcissism, by his lack of basic knowledge about the Constitution. I was especially outraged by the sexually abusive recording on the bus with Billy Bush.

Why weren’t others outraged? Either they weren’t paying attention, or they had no moral compass.

Yet after the election I decided to lay low. Not expose my anger. It would only widen the gulf between Trump supporters and those of us who opposed him. And, more important to me, it would sap my emotional energy.

Oh, the inconvenience of anger.

I want to write, and my age has added an urgency. I want to market my most recent book. I want to hike with my husband, visit my grandchildren. Most of all, I have dreaded the emotional drain of anger.

The violence in Charlottesville forced me to rethink disengagement. Who were the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists marching against? Individuals I care about: African-American friends in whose homes I have experienced warmth and hospitality; gay friends in whose homes I have experienced warmth and hospitality; Jewish friends in whose homes I have experienced warmth and hospitality; immigrants in whose homes I have experienced warmth and hospitality. I, in turn, have welcomed them into my home.

Those the protesters marched against are people of compassion and intellect, who add depth and richness of character to our society. They are teachers, pastors, business people, students, volunteers.

Anger an inconvenience for me? How ashamed I am.

 

Nancy Werking Poling is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

Since Charlottesville

As a white girl growing up in the 1950’s South, I was socialized to suppress my anger. “Smile though your heart is aching,” Nat King Cole (a frequent target of racists) sang. “If you can’t say something positive, don’t say anything at all,” my mother taught.

When Trump was elected, I was devastated. I recognized the evil his new status as president had unleashed. Since then my heart has been aching. I am terrified. I am furious.

Not wanting to dump my anger and all the negatively I’ve been feeling on social media, I’ve taken a break from blogging. On Facebook I’ve mostly “Liked” and “Shared” what others post about the political and social climate under the Trump administration. Besides, plenty of excellent writers have been expressing my feelings much more eloquently than I can. Let them speak for me. I even set a new goal: find positive stories to post on my website (which I never got around to).

I thought I was doing the right thing, being silent these past seven months. Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville challenged that notion.

I may not have profound insight. I may not have profound words. That doesn’t mean my voice is worthless. I plan to express my anger and fears on my site in coming days.

For now, let me just say—not with eloquence—that as a white woman, I abhor the racism displayed this past weekend in Charlottesville.

 

Nancy Werking Poling’s most recent book is Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). It is available in paperback and on Kindle.

Watergate and Canned Tomatoes

During the summer of 1973—while I canned fifty quarts of tomatoes, fifty quarts of tomato juice, twenty pints of tomato sauce, and twelve pints of catsup—Men in Power were asking what did Nixon know and when did he know it. Toiling in my narrow kitchen, with its five feet of counter space and four-burner electric stove, I simultaneously followed the Senate Watergate Hearings on a 15-inch black-and-white TV. I wanted answers too.

Operating all at once, the four stove burners rivaled a Bessemer in emitting BTUs. Blue and white speckled enamel canners occupied two burners. On another, a large tea kettle maintained a low whistle. On the left front burner a pan of water boiled.

As Tom Daschel posed questions to men who swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, I prepared tomatoes for easy peeling by briefly immersing them in the pan of boiling water. Nixon was in hot water too, and everyone knew him to be a sweating man, even when he sat in the air-conditioned Oval Office signing his now besmirched name. Had he been in my kitchen, the heat would have convinced him he was already in hell.

While H.R. Haldeman scalded the truth, I stuffed whole tomatoes into quart Mason jars, which I filled to the top with boiling water from the tea kettle. From a sauce pan resting on the sink drain, I lifted sterilized lids, placed them on the jars with tongs, then screwed on the metal rings. The whole country was getting screwed.

The simple life, that was the path my husband and I had chosen. Self-sufficiency. A quarter of an acre in tomatoes, corn, peas, green beans, and other vegetables, enough filled glass jars on basement shelves and cardboard boxes in our twenty-cubic-foot freezer to feed us until Armageddon or the next harvest, whichever came first. In 1973 our young bodies were agile. For hours we could bend over a hoe, work on our knees, gently place tomato plants in the ground, pack muddy soil around them.

“Now I’m just a country lawyer,” Sam Erwin said, obviously shrewd in spite of his self-deprecating performance. A country lawyer butting heads with urbane fellows acting as if they were above the law. I pictured Erwin as a young man, laboring in a garden not unlike ours. Dirt caked our hands, got under our fingernails. Had Erwin’s hands once looked the same? Surely those of Haldeman and Ehrlichman were well manicured.

Contrary to what we’d assumed, maintaining a successful garden required much more than planting and hoeing. We read Rodale publications, subscribed to organic gardening magazines. Some suggested that gardeners keep records of what they planted and when. Yes, the simple life was far more complicated than we’d anticipated.

Life was turning out to be complicated for John Dean, as well, who testified for seven hours one day. But he’d kept records, could tell the senators what Nixon and Haldeman and Ehrlichman had said in his presence. Pulling the weeds of deception out by the roots, he was.

My glasses steamed as I lifted the racks out of the canners. One by one I carried the hot jars to the counter, lining them up on layers of dish towels, then beginning the process all over again: dipping whole tomatoes into boiling water, stuffing clean jars, filling the jars to the top with boiling water, putting on lids, lowering them into the water bath.

Our garden was a political statement, something young people of the late 1960s and early 70s did to demonstrate our disdain for the Establishment. We refused to buy into the capitalist dream, shunning the symbols of affluence and power. Everything on my little TV set supported that decision. The government was corrupt, and the Watergate hearings were proving it.

Still, I was shocked, when on a July day, while I stirred a batch of catsup, Alexander Butterfield testified that Nixon recorded conversations and phone calls. To make sure I didn’t miss anything, I walked away from the pan to stand next to the TV. By the time I returned to the stove the catsup was sticking to the bottom of the pan, scorched, ruined.

As jars on my kitchen counter cooled, the lids would ping, evidence that the jars were sealed. When they were cool, I carried them, two at a time, down the basement steps, into a small dark room lined with shelves.

When I dropped in bed each night exhausted, in those brief moments before I fell asleep, I considered the sleepless nights many in Washington were experiencing, innocent and guilty alike: Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weiker worrying about how the Republican Party would ever recover; Charles Colson and G. Gordan Liddy becoming aware that they might spend years in prison; Butterfield and Dean, no doubt fretting about betraying those they’d worked for. Then of course, Nixon himself. He couldn’t be sleeping well.

Why was I so obsessed with watching the Watergate hearings? In many ways they were like a soap opera, where any minute the plot takes an unexpected turn. At times I imagined background music changing tempo, becoming more somber as the drama built. Yet, I, like many other Americans, sensed that history was being made; that bringing down a president was no light matter; that the country would never be the same.

There was probably a more personal reason, as well. In spite of our goal of self-reliance, I recognized that my husband and I could never be separate. Just as we had vowed to stay married for better or for worse, we were part of this country for better or for worse. As much as we wanted to isolate ourselves from capitalist society, we were tied to its fate.

 

(This is an abbreviated version of a piece published in some magazine in the distant past. I don’t recall which one.)