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).

Concern for the world’s children

The picture made me teary. My daughter, Christie, posted it on Facebook to commemorate Mother’s Day. At nineteen months she’s on my lap, clinging to me. After being gone three days, I’d just returned from the hospital with her new baby brother.

The summer of ’68 was a disruptive one for our young family. We had left the only home in Christie’s memory, student housing, so that my husband, Jim, could be involved in the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington D.C. When the government shut down Resurrection City, Jim joined many who protested the eviction by staying. He was arrested for “camping without a permit” and in prison for three weeks. Upon his release, Christie would not let him out of her sight. Five days later I left for the hospital in the middle of the night. Christie woke up the next morning in the care of friends. What was a young child to make of the most important adults in her life disappearing and reappearing?

I’m reminded of the disruptions in the lives of many children worldwide. Of girls and boys in Ukraine, some fleeing with their mothers to neighboring countries while their fathers fight in a war,others kidnapped and taken to Russia. Fathers in countries affected by climate change or repressive governments see no choice for family survival than to flee to more prosperous countries. They intend to send money back and eventually bring the family to join them but often are detained in refugee camps. On TV I see mothers and fathers leading their children across the Rio Grande. After an arduous journey, many families will be caught illegally entering the U.S. and separated.  

Today Christie tried to assuage my guilt. Maybe, she said, she developed confidence that those she loved might disappear for a spell but would return.

May that be true for the many children of the world whose lives have been disrupted by war and migration.

*We can demonstrate our compassion for children by donating to charitable organizations. I’ve not researched which ones are credible. I tend to trust religious denominations.

A Florida Miseducation

I’m a product of Florida schools, the kind of educational system Ron DeSantis is trying to resurrect.

I attended white schools. Black students had their own schools. Separate but equal, supposedly. My teachers were white. Not until, as a seventeen-year-old, I had a job as a waitress, did I ever engage in a conversation with anyone who wasn’t white. When business slowed, Norman, the Black cook, had the patience to take my immature inquisitiveness seriously. 

I studied white history. At Robert E. Lee Junior High, I learned that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but over whether a state could leave the Union. The only Black historical figure I recall learning about was George Washington Carver. Something to do with peanuts, which didn’t much impress me. 

I studied white male history. Sure, there were Jane Addams, Clara Barton, and Betsy Ross, all doing what females were supposed to do: sew and take care of others. Meanwhile, White Men of Power waged war, invented things, and benignly governed.

I’ve since expanded my knowledge of history, some of it related to Florida. Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove is the compelling true story of a 1949 tragedy. The Lake County, Florida, sheriff and the KKK viciously hunted down four young Black men falsely accused of raping a nineteen-year-old white girl. Two of the men were murdered, two sentenced to life in prison. King writes, “From 1882 to 1930, Florida recorded more lynchings of black people (266) than any other state, and from 1900 to 1930, a per capita lynching rate twice that of Mississippi, Georgia, or Louisiana.”

In Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920, Paul Ortiz writes of the efforts of Black Floridians to build lives and community following the Civil War. When Black men tried to vote in the 1920 election, white supremists and the KKK attacked them, killing twenty.

I and many of my generation were taught a skewed history of America. Yes, in truth, there were White Men of Power, but most of us trace our roots to racial and ethnic groups that suffered and persisted, suffered and persisted, suffered and persisted. To deny their role in the shaping of our country is to distort American history. 

Perhaps I read history because the word is built around story. Stories broaden my perspective. They increase my capacity for empathy by revealing others’ struggles and heroism.

Why would we deny our children that gift?

Who pays when we prohibit abortions?

Of course, it’s not about money. But money (the cost of bread and milk and gasoline) seems to be driving voters’ decisions about who to vote for in the Midterms. Why can’t the financial consequences of prohibiting abortions also become part of that decision?

I admit I got a C in economics, so I’m not the one to do a cost analysis. However, a woman’s common sense informs me at times like this. 

In early October, Brookings Institution analyzed U.S. Agriculture Department data and calculated: “From the day your baby is born until the day they turn 18, your family will spend about $310,605 — or about $17,000 a year” https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/interactive/2022/cost-raising-child-calculator/.

Imagine a family of four or five, a mother whose income the family depends on, a single mother—imagine their paying for housing (a larger house might be necessary), education (not including college), food, transportation, health care, and clothing for one more child.

The $310,605 does NOT include what an influx of children will cost the community. We’ll need more schools, more teachers, more after-school programs, more police (as the kids become teens and get stopped for speeding, carrying pot, and disturbing the peace). All this paid for with TAX DOLLARS.

But wait. Republicans accuse Democrats of increasing taxes. So will Republicans pass legislation to pay for community services? Of course not. Why? Because the majority of those kids will be born to low-income women. We’ll hear more about “welfare mothers” who sap our country’s financial resources. The affluent white population will assume these women are Black.

Many will label single mothers promiscuous. Some will blame mothers for staying at home to care for their children instead of working. Some will accuse mothers who work low-wage jobs—women who cannot afford childcare, forced to leave children unsupervised—of child-neglect.  

Meanwhile, affluent white women are more able to travel out of state for an abortion. Their right to privacy remains intact. Their status as respectable citizens remains intact.

As soon as the Supreme Court struck down Roe, the radical right-to-life people spoke of how precious each embryo is. They made statements praising adoption and pledged community support for women forced to bear children. I don’t believe it. 

Mothers and families aren’t the only ones to pay the price. We all will bear the financial burdens. Have Republicans proposed a budget for this?

Of course, it’s not about money.

Where is the Republican budget plan?

I was in Canada when I read that the Buncombe County Public Schools (our local district) had been awarded $1.7 million for security upgrades. “Security,” we all know by now, means preventing intruders from killing our children and their teachers. 

There are 3,143 counties in the United States. Granted, many have fewer school buildings than Buncombe County. So to make my point I’ll estimate a much lower price tag for making schools secure: $1 million per county. Nationwide, that amounts to $3,143,000,000. That’s three BILLION! This does not include buying firearms for teachers and staff, training them to use the weapons, or placing secure gun storage in each classroom.

In Canada it is not illegal to own a gun, but the country has strict gun laws. In May, 2022, Justin Trudeau issued a statement: “(T)wo years ago we banned over 1,500 types of military-style assault firearms. We also strengthened our gun control laws to expand background checks and keep firearms out of the wrong hands. These measures are helping to keep our children and communities safe” https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/news-releases/2022/05/30/further-strengthening-our-gun-control-laws.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Republicans have resisted gun legislation. In the House, the Protecting Our Kids Act passed 223 to 204, with only five Republicans voting in favor. In June the House passed H.R.127 by a 234-193 vote. Only 14 Republicans joined the Democratic majority. The bill raises the purchase age of firearms, bans high-capacity magazines, and expands background checks.

Assuming that building-security measures are not going to prevent all school shootings (or shootings in malls, grocery stores, synagogues, or along parade routes), we will continue to have the expenses of medical emergencies, PTSD counseling, and funerals. And if shootings can be blamed on troubled young men, we need to come up with funds for identifying them and paying their mental-health expenses.

Republicans, while they claim to favor lower taxes, say nothing about what their obstinance costs American communities in dollars. 

Not to mention lives and trauma.


List of Republicans who voted against the Protecting Our Kids Act: https://www.newsweek.com/full-list-house-republicans-who-voted-against-gun-control-1714108

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

What you might not understand about student debt

For 19 years I worked in college learning centers. One of the colleges was in rural New York, the other in downtown Chicago. Both were small, private schools. Neither was selective. That is, they accepted many applicants who were academically unprepared for higher education. Whether or not the odds for graduation were promising, a Financial Aid Office made sure students could put together enough in loans to pay tuition. 

Some who sought the services of the Learning Center were B students striving for A’s, but most who came struggled academically. Often they were the first in their family to attend college. Because I worked with students individually, I learned of their aspirations and struggles. Most hoped for employment in public education, social services, and the hospitality industry. Women balanced lives as mothers, students, and employees at minimum wage jobs. 

What you might not understand about student debt is that many colleges are small private institutions whose survival depends on student tuition to pay bills. Often this has been a predatory practice, as young men and women who had little chance of graduating were burdened with debt they would likely never be able to repay.

You probably know that our public-school systems, particularly urban ones, are not preparing students for college. Yet college graduates earn more money over a lifetime than non-graduates. This reality preys upon the aspirations of those who dream of someday having a family and home. So why would a young person, even one academically unprepared, NOT choose to attend college? 

For many I worked with, graduating required persistence…and a willingness to accumulate debt.

I feel blessed to have known them and admire them for the contributions they’re making to their communities. As a taxpayer, I am willing to contribute to their debt relief and that of others exploited by a system that never had their interests in mind.

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,