About Nancy Werking Poling

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

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.)

 

 

Trump’s take on Andrew Jackson

President Trump’s May 1 remarks about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War may point to something more problematic than a lack of historical knowledge. “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War….he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

Trump is not just uninformed; he is promoting a revised history, and I doubt that it’s accidental.

Educated in a southern high school, I learned that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but over states’ right to secede from the Union. A friend, an intelligent woman, recently said she graduated from high school uncertain about who had won the Civil War. Only a year ago I listened to a young libertarian/survivalist couple enthusiastically tell about a writer popular with them and their friends. The Civil War was not fought over slavery, the author has written.

We’ve seen Trump’s ability to creative alternative facts: his inauguration was attended by more people than any other in history; President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. The news on TV is mostly fake news.

Maybe it is not ignorance, but a strategy for concentrating political power. “A totalitarian makes war on truth, perverts the assumptions that underlie critical thinking, and masters the dark art of propaganda” (Cynthia Tucker, http://www.pressconnects.com/story/opinion/columnists/2017/03/20/trumps-supporters-still-back-himregardless-debunked-lies/99274946/).

Is Trump deliberately promoting a revisionist view of history? If so, to what end? Who will benefit? Who will be the losers?

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

Kim Jong-Un as a cult leader

In 2008, on an autumn day in Seoul, my husband and I hiked the mountain behind Yonsei University. Part way we came upon a group of young men in camouflage digging a long ditch. What were they doing, we asked in English. They were South Korean soldiers digging a trench in case North Korea invaded. North Korea’s threat became real to me.

Two semesters in Seoul and one day in North Korea do not qualify me as an expert on the peninsula. The day trip north, though, made me aware of how short a distance the border is from Seoul, one of the planet’s most densely populated cities.

A novel I’m reading, set in the compound of a cult, brings to mind the Jonestown Massacre, where 900 of Jim Jones’s followers drank cyanide-laced fruit punch. If we have learned anything from groups like that, it is that cult leaders don’t operate out of what many of us consider rational behavior. For the leader, at least, submitting to someone else’s authority is worse than death.

It’s no stretch to believe that Kim Jong-un, like his father, is a cult leader. He has convinced the North Korean people that no matter how bad things are, it’s worse everywhere else. He also promotes paranoia: the U.S. is set on annihilating their country. All sacrifices the people make are for a greater good.

In Kim’s apocalyptic world view, violence and destruction are inevitable. He can justify the murder of a half-brother and uncle, the imprisonment and oppression of the North Korean people. Perhaps North Koreans have come to accept that if they are going to die anyway, their Supreme Leader will at least be in control of their final days.

Meanwhile the U. S. military acts as if Kim might respond according to our rationality. Place a battleship nearby, rattle the sabers. He’ll see our resolve and back down.

What we know about cult behavior, though, suggests that it’s hard, if not impossible, to predict the leader’s and his followers’ reactions. An apocalyptic end that includes bombing Seoul may be more alluring than all other options.

Sure, we may prevent Kim from producing a missile that can reach the U.S. But Seoul, with its population of over 10 million, is just 35 miles away.

Two writers weigh the impact of travel on Earth’s climate

A response to the previous post, “Travel: an environmental dilemma” 

by Jean Franklin

My husband Carl, a physics teacher and meteorologist, has known about climate change since 1970, but thought it would not become a problem in his lifetime. Then shockingly, about 10 years ago, scientists announced that Earth is warming much faster than expected.

We talked it over, facing the facts. As American baby boomers, we had consumed more fossil fuels than any generation in history, and at age 60 we had enough discretionary income to continue harming the environment for 30 more years. We lived in a 3,000-square-foot home and drove two cars to work. We were planning to buy a small RV and tour the Western national parks.

In 2007 we decided to change our lives. We have now lowered our carbon footprint more than 60 percent. Our big decision was to scrap the RV idea and buy solar panels for our bookstore and a Prius. In 2010, we moved within a mile of downtown, where we could walk to work, church, and restaurants. Through a combination of planning and luck, we sold our large house and bought a 1,000-square-foot cottage.

We also changed our thinking about travel. We have not been on a plane since before 9/11. Not only does it take massive amounts of fossil fuel to lift 500 pounds (two people plus luggage) 30,000 feet into the air and propel us thousands of miles, but the jet’s contrails, frozen water vapor, act as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Since we live in paradise—Western North Carolina—we vacation within a few miles of home. We visit our children in Durham and Atlanta, but otherwise, we like to park our car at a hotel in a quaint mountain town and simply stroll, enjoying restaurants, plays, and concerts.

We travel to fabulous places through books and documentaries. It does not break our hearts to miss seeing the Serengheti or the Great Barrier Reef; it breaks our hearts that millions of African people and elephants are starving due to acute droughts, that large sections of Australia’s great reef are dead due to overheated sea water. Some Americans say, “My small efforts won’t help,” but scientists beg to differ, and beg for our help. The game is not over. Battle fatigued climate scientists say that everything we do will make the future better.

Note: Some people who fly purchase carbon offsets—for example, from groups giving away efficient cookstoves to prevent native people from cutting down trees in rainforests for firewood. Google “carbon offsets” and browse the many options.

 

Jean and Carl Franklin, retired teachers and co-owners of Black Mountain Books, teach and write about climate change.