About Nancy Werking Poling

Author of fiction and non-fiction, blogger on current events and women's experience. My published works include "While Earth Still Speaks" (a novel); "Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987)" (nonfiction); "Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman" (a short story collection); and "Out of the Pumpkin Shell" (a novel).

Where’s the liberal church?

Several years ago John Lewis spoke at Montreat (a nearby venue, for readers unfamiliar with our area). Seated together on the front row of the auditorium, a group of elderly ministers were asked to stand. White ministers. Southern ministers. During the tumultuous sixties some of them invited Black speakers to their pulpits; some participated in demonstrations; some preached against denying Blacks the right to vote and use public spaces.

The actions of these ministers were met with fury. They were spit upon, their families threatened. Some were jailed, some fired. 

Oh, that we saw such courage today.

The Gospel has been usurped. People calling themselves “Christians” conflate Jesus and guns. They would have us believe that God hates gays, that God cares more about a pin-sized collection of cells in a woman’s body than for the woman and her family. Until recently ministers proclaimed from the pulpit that God chose Donald Trump to be our president.

What has been the response of many Mainline Protestant congregations? (I hesitate to use the labels “liberal” and “conservative,” but to be clear “liberal” best describes what I’m talking about.) I call the church’s response “Rodney King theology”: Why can’t we all get along? From the pulpit we are admonished to listen to those who disagree with us, to reach out in love. We hear about Jesus’ compassion for the Samaritan woman, his compassion for Zacchaeus, his compassion for the masses. 

Little is said about Jesus’ anger. The best-known example is his overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. But scripture tells of other times when “he looked around at them with anger.” “Woe to you…” he says over and over in Matthew 23.

Pastor friends, I don’t lay all responsibility for a prophetic witness on you. We all need to speak out—not as politically liberal citizens but as Christians. 

What I need from you is an acknowledgement of the anger and despair I and many are feeling. Prayers and mention of the past week’s disturbing news aren’t enough. Can you not from your public forum name the evil forces of our time and offer guidance on how we can confront them?

The words of an old hymn just came to mind: “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah/ pilgrim through this barren land….Strong Deliverer, be Thou still my strength and shield.”

Watergate and Canned Tomatoes

During the summer of 1973—while I canned fifty quarts of tomatoes, fifty quarts of tomato juice, and twelve pints of catsup (not to mention the green beans and corn)—less than two hundred miles away 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, a Youngstown metal sink, and an ancient four-burner electric stove—I faithfully followed the Senate Watergate Hearings on a fifteen-inch black and white TV. 

I wanted answers too.

Canners of blue-and-white-speckled enamel occupied two burners; on another a tea kettle maintained a low whistle. On the fourth burner a pan of water boiled. Frequently I’d interrupt the flow of work to wipe my sweating forehead with the tail of my sleeveless blouse. 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 pealing, 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 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 saucepan 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 had been screwed.

Both canners held seven jars. After placing a newly filled jar in each slot of a wire rack, I gently lowered the heavy rack into the boiling water bath. Pausing to rest a moment while the stove and canners carried out their responsibilities, I sat at the kitchen table staring at the TV, engrossed in Daniel Inouye’s line of questioning.

The Simple Life, that was the path my husband, Jim, and I had chosen. Self-sufficiency. A quarter of an acre in tomatoes, corn, green beans, and other vegetables, enough quart boxes in our twenty-cubic-foot freezer to feed us until next harvest. Quite an undertaking for a young woman who’d grown up in the city and a young man whose previous gardening experience had been limited to reluctantly weeding alongside his father. We sought advice from other gardeners and read organic gardening magazines, which recommended that we keep records of what we’d planted and when. The simple life, we discovered, was more complicated than 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 dishtowels, then beginning the process all over again: dipping whole tomatoes in boiling water, putting on lids, lowering jars into the water bath.

Our garden was a political statement, something young people of the 1960s needed to do to declare our disdain for the Establishment. We refused to buy into the capitalist dream, shunning the symbols of affluence and power. That summer everything on my little TV supported our decision. The government was corrupt, and the Watergate hearings were proving it.

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

Jars on my kitchen counter cooled. Every now and then a lid would ping, a sign that the jar had sealed. Two at a time I carried them down the basement steps into a small dark room lined with shelves. Evidence of Jim’s and my success at being self-sufficient.

“Now I’m just a country lawyer,” Sam Erwin said, obviously shrewd in spite of his self-deprecating words. A country lawyer butting heads with urbane fellows acting as if they were above the law. Stepping away from the stove to cool off, sweeping a strand of wet hair from my face, I pictured Erwin as a young man laboring in a garden (though he probably didn’t).

Twenty holes filled with water, twenty tomato plants, their stems wrapped in strips cut from paper grocery bags to protect them from boring insects. In 1973 our young bodies were agile. For hours we would bend over a hoe, work on our knees, gently place the tomato plants in the holes, pack the muddy soil down around them. Dirt caked our hands, got under our fingernails. Surely the fingernails of Haldeman and Ehrlichman were well manicured, their cuticles not ragged.

When I dropped in bed each night from exhaustion, 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. Gordon Liddy becoming aware that they might spend years in prison; Butterfield and Dean fretting about betraying those they 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, the tune becoming somber, dramatic. Yet I, like many 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 Jim’s and my goal of self-reliance, of our choosing to isolate ourselves from capitalist society, I recognized that we could never be separate. Just as I had vowed to stay married for better or for worse, I was a part of a country for better or for worse. I was tied to its fate.

Nancy Werking Poling is author of the novel, “While Earth Still Speaks,” and the non-fiction book, “Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).”

A message for graduates 

No one’s asked me to speak at graduation, but I’ve prepared a message for seniors anyway. 

Theme: Values you’ve been taught in school—forget them. 

1)     Play fair. In sports and group projects you’ve been taught to work cooperatively, follow the rules, and lose gracefully. Forget it. Look out for Number One, remake the rules to guarantee your success, and never admit defeat. 

2)     Always tell the truth. Forget it. Presenting supporting evidence and documenting sources apply only to student research papers. Adults know that the truth is whatever they want it to be. 

3)     Don’t resort to name calling. Forget it. Go with “socialist elitists,” “Pocahontas,” “Sleepy Joe.” Name calling is a very effective way to create negative associations that stick. 

4)   Respect and uphold the Constitution. Forget it. Hug the flag and interpret the Constitution to suit your purposes. 

5)   Value the scientific method, which includes knowing the difference between theories and hypotheses. Forget it. If you benefit, declare that human behavior has nothing to do with global warming.

6)    Understand and value our nation’s history. Forget it—especially if you’re white and have children. You don’t want them feeling guilty about injustices of the past. 

7)  Respect those from different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Forget it. Close the borders. Real Americans (i.e., white) should be winning our national spelling bees, representing us at the Olympics, and be the ones honored for their scientific and technological contributions. 

8)    Share what you have. Forget it. What’s yours is yours. Accumulate all you can.

Graduates, in case you haven’t noticed, the education you’ve received has little relationship to the culture you’re stepping out into. You can, of course, adjust to the real world. Or you can envision a better way, put what you’ve learned in school into practice, and work for change.

Is it left or right?

I’m confused. I no longer know left from right. 

Vladimir Putin was a member of the KGB of the Soviet Union, a communist confederation. Communists are considered to be on the Far Left of the political spectrum. But there is no longer a Soviet Union, hence no longer a communist state. Property that once belonged to the state now belongs to oligarchs, Putin among them, so he’s no longer Far-Left. China is a communist country, which makes it Far Left. Xi and Putin have declared their friendship. Hmm.

What about the Far Right? We know that Putin’s values are extreme. Now that he’s no longer Far Left, is he Far Right? He’s a Nationalist, isn’t he? Nationalism as an ideology is Far Right. In 2018 Donald Trump said, “I’m a nationalist.” He admires Putin. In the Spanish civil war, the Nationalists were aided by Germany, a Fascist country. Fascist Germans were called Nazis. White nationalists in the U.S. are considered Far-Right. Throngs that stormed the Capitol on January 6thwere Far-Right, weren’t they?

Putin says he sent forces into Ukraine to rid it of Nazis. Nazis are Far Right, no? Does that mean that Putin is Far Left again?

Bernie Sanders is a Socialist, which makes him pretty Far Left. The Republican Party warns American voters of The Left, referring, I guess, to socialists and communists and Bernie Sanders. 

It’s all so confusing.

Of What Value is a Book?

A few weeks after I arrived to spend a year with a German family in Berlin, I celebrated my sixteenth birthday. They gave me two books: The Diary of Anne Frank and Cry, the Beloved Country. These two books informed my life as no other books have.

Until then I had no knowledge of the Holocaust, no idea that the Nazis had murdered six million Jews. As a Southern girl who rode the city bus to school, sat while Black women and men who’d worked all day stood at the back, I’d given no thought to American racism and knew absolutely nothing about South Africa. Both books were hard to read, not because of vocabulary or complex sentences, but because they burst my bubble of innocence. 

Did I feel guilt, as some parents and school boards fear their children will react? No. I felt empathy. I cried over a girl my age being killed because she was a Jew. I ached because Black characters I knew by name suffered under apartheid in South Africa. I began to wonder about the lives of Jewish kids in my school back home. I thought about tensions related to racial integration in American schools.

WHY do we read? I read to better understand my own experience. Anne Tyler’s and Margaret Atwood’s books about women come to mind. They show me that I’m not alone in how I feel. In Well-Read Black Girl, Black women writers tell what it meant to them as girls to discover the works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

I also read to better understand unfamiliar people and cultures. To learn about Afghanistan and other Muslim nations, I have read authors such as Khaled Hosseini. To better understand the experiences of Black women I have read books by Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison.

What else are parents and school boards objecting to? Profanity. Have they listened to their children in conversation with friends? Violence and sex. Have these parents organized protests against film and television producers who “entertain” their children? Are they monitoring the video games their children play?

I see no easy solutions to the pervasiveness of sex and violence in our culture. But I trust teachers and librarians to steer our youth toward books that broaden their worldview.

And that foster an understanding of Other,

In praise of librarians

The Burke County, NC, librarian pulled directories from the shelves, ran her finger down columns of indices. “Now why would…?” she’d now and then ask. Had it not been for her efforts I might not have written Leander’s Lies, my novel-in-progress.

I don’t remember the librarian of the College Park Branch (Orlando), but she at least kept it running, for every week or so I walked home carrying a stack of books. When my kids were little, a librarian gave mothers an hour of reprieve by organizing weekly story times. In my work as an educator, I saw how librarians went out of their way to help students locate materials that interested them or enabled them to complete a research project.

Public librarians, in addition to keeping the shelves current, schedule events that entertain and educate the citizenry. They offer space for a variety of groups to meet: political, environmental, literary. They allow local artists and writers to present their work.

So how can it be that zealots are threatening this group of helping professionals? Librarians are the preservers of democracy, not its enemy. They order and distribute materials that make an educated public possible. They contribute to our informed discourse. Because of librarians we and our children can read varying positions on a host of issues and make informed decisions.

Fanatics are making threats over a stack of books they find offensive without considering what a valuable resource librarians are to our communities. I guess I’m a snob for concluding that these extremists have probably seldom if ever entered the doors of a library. 

A related observation: Do these parents as carefully monitor what their children watch on their computers and television screens? 

When commitment becomes extreme

Mary Surratt would not go away. My writing group and readers of earlier drafts kept advising me to delete her. All agreed that a co-conspirator in the assassination of Lincoln had no place in a novel about women trying to save the planet from environmental disaster. She insisted on staying.

The novel, While Earth Still Speaks, originated with my wondering if there was a cause so important to my grandchildren’s future that I’d be willing to give my life. I had, after all, lived more than three score years. All that I read about deforestation and humans taking over animal habitats and global warming led me to choose the environment. My protagonist would be willing to risk her life to save Earth. 

During the past year the degree of Americans’ commitment to a cause has become less hypothetical. A February survey by the American Enterprise Institute “found that nearly three in 10 Americans, including 39% of Republicans, agreed that ‘if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions’” https://www.npr.org/2021/02/11/966498544/a-scary-survey-finding-4-in-10-republicans-say-political-violence-may-be-necessa. More recent news offers no hope that this level of commitment has diminished.

The Mary Surratt who invaded my imagination supported the Confederacy and slavery. Her Washington rooming house was a place where she, her son John, and John Wilkes Booth could strategize. They believed they had a moral obligation to kill the president.

She made her way into my book as a reminder that not all causes merit such commitment. 

When commitment becomes extreme

Meanwhile, Across the Atlantic

On the morning of September 12, 2001, my husband, Jim, and I walked along the narrow brick street of a small Italian hilltown. At an outdoor newspaper stand a front-page photograph caught our attention: billows of smoke over New York. Likely an image related to a new movie. Yet we stopped. Relying on the little high school Latin we remembered, we figured something horrible had happened in New York. Terrorists. Jets. Skyscrapers. 

When we stopped for lunch at a café-tavern, a few men were watching a sports event on TV. For our benefit the proprietor changed the channel to CNN. In halting English patrons expressed concern for our country. A waiter took us to his apartment so we could use his computer to email our family. Over the next few days we had little choice but to continue our itinerary, driving from one hilltown to another. Everywhere local people had created memorials, bouquet piled on bouquet, placards expressing prayers for America. 

Back in Rome those of us whose flights home had been cancelled waited. Jim and I travel cheap and our little hotel had no TV, so we watched CNN in lobbies of expensive hotels where Americans tend to stay. No one chased us away.

During those days of waiting we had many opportunities to engage in conversation. At the Forum a Japanese journalist who had spent much of his career in the Middle East warned that a military response by the U.S would be a big mistake. At a restaurant recommended by travel guru Rick Steves, American tourists, who tend to eat dinner earlier than Italians do, sat at adjoining tables and shared worries about our families back home.

Jim and I returned to the U.S. feeling as if we’d slept through an earthquake, waking to discover that life here had changed drastically. In a way I regret being absent during a defining moment in our country’s history. Yet I was blessed to experience how the world stood with us. 

Sesame Street got it wrong

The results of the 2020 census are in. We know approximately how many Americans identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, White, Other. Interesting, but relevant?

I sometimes wonder if we’re wired to differentiate. Over here are plants. Some can heal your wound, some are tasty, and some are pretty to gather. Over here are animals. Some make good pets, some will fight you to protect their young or their turf. This cloud’s going to get me soaking wet. I’ll just lie down and try to find an animal in that one. 

Twice my husband, Jim, and I spent a semester in Seoul, ROK. On the subway we’d often notice a small child staring at us. Even toddlers knew we didn’t resemble people they knew. I admit that sometimes I look at someone on TV and wonder, is that person male or female? Is the person of Middle Eastern or Hispanic descent? Black or something else? I seem to be wired to categorize people. Or are such classifications the result of my living in a society where certain differences are exaggerated? Who decides which ones separate those who belong from those who don’t? 

Any parent who’s watched their child circle objects on school worksheets has seen this reading-readiness exercise: Circle the object that doesn’t belong. A Sesame Street song accompanies a picture of four balloons, three red ones and a blue one. “One of these things is not like the others/ One of these things doesn’t belong.” 

Hey, all four of the objects are balloons! Just because one is blue doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong. It expands as you fill it with air. It will pop of you stick it with a pin.

That’s the real problem, isn’t it? Deciding on the basis of difference that something/someone doesn’t belong. Let’s agree: the category is human.

We all belong.

Dear Senator Cruz

(My friend, Cannan Hyde, wrote a letter to Senator Cruz about being “a good dad.” Do the pandemic and natural disasters offer unique opportunities for parenting? I thought the letter is worth sending to a wider audience.)

Dear Senator Cruz,

Here are some ideas for how to “be a good dad” in the middle of a pandemic and the worst winter weather crisis your state has ever had.

Start by asking your daughters what ideas THEY have about how to help others in their city who do not have heat, water or food. This will help them to learn to think critically about how to respond to those less fortunate than they during a natural disaster. It will also help them learn that even at their young ages they can be agents of change. After helping them implement their ideas, you could suggest the following:

  1. The girls are old enough to coordinate a “keep our community warm” drive. They could contact their classmates at their private school and friends at their church to go through their own homes collecting jackets, gloves and blankets to take to their church or a community shelter to help keep people warm.
  2. Help them box up up any food in your house that does not have to be cooked. Drive them to a shelter or food bank where they can deliver it.
  3. Track down places where you can get wood to be burned in fireplaces to keep people warm. Let the girls know that people are cutting up their furniture to burn in their fireplaces just to keep from freezing in their homes. They can help you load the wood in your SUV and deliver it to homes that have fireplaces but no wood. 
  4. Locate a store in your area that has 5 gallon buckets with lids. Take the girls to purchase 10 each, fill with water, then help them deliver it to folks who have none. Take snow shovels with you so you can all shovel snow for people to use to flush their toilets.
  5. Let the girls listen in on your phone calls to friends in neighboring states that DO have power to see if they can send over firewood, water and food to distribute to those in need. With the money you save from not going to the Ritz Carlton you could tell your friends you would pay for an AWD rental truck and driver to bring the much needed supplies.The girls could then help you deliver them. 
  6. Explain to your daughters that the reason your friends in neighboring states have power and you don’t is because they have reciprocal agreements with other states to share power in case of a local utility crisis. They might not realize that Texas has its own “reliable” power source which isn’t exactly reliable.
  7. Be sure your daughters understand that you represent the entire state of Texas and that you have a responsibility to all your constituents, especially in a time of crisis. Ask them what ideas they have about what you could do to help people who are suffering all over the state. They may have ideas other than flying to Cancun. Respectfully,