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,

Repeating our History

Election Day, 1920, Orange County, FL, the county where I grew up. Black groups had been conducting voter registration drives. When Mose Norman, a Black man, tried to vote, a white mob went after him. In the next two days homes of nearly all of Ocoee’s Black families were destroyed by fire. Some estimates are that the white mob killed as many as 60 Blacks, maybe more.

My writing research into racial politics of North and South Carolina in the late 19th century has led me to two events, both related to Black men trying to vote. No doubt there were many, many more. 

Nov. 8, 1898, Phoenix, South Carolina. A white man was collecting affidavits from Black men who had not been allowed to vote. When local *Democrats ordered him to stop, he resisted and a fight broke out. The Democrats opened fire on the crowd of Black men who had gathered. Over the next few days 600-1000 white men descended on the town, burning homes, lynching four Black men, and killing an unknown number of others. No one was charged with the murders.

Nov. 10, 1898, Wilmington, NC. After the election, a mob of 2000 white supremacists, angry that a Black-white coalition had won the election, destroyed the property of Black citizens, killed perhaps as many as 300 people, and overthrew the election. For some time it was called a race riot and blamed on Black citizens of Wilmington, but now considered to have been a coup d’etat.

Wednesday’s attempted coup followed an election in which Black voters played a major role. It was not just about Trump. Insurrectionists were saying this is a white country and Black citizens’ votes shouldn’t count.

* Following Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s most southern white Democrats became Republicans.

John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

As I mourn with the country over the death of John Lewis and my thanksgiving for his life, my thoughts keep returning to…to library cards. In Walking With the Wind and in numerous interviews, Lewis told of being denied a library card when he was sixteen because the library was “not for coloreds.” Of the many horrendous acts of racism against him, this single event seemed to stand out as one of such emotional pain that he often returned to the story.

In the summer of 1964 my husband, a seminary student participating in an interracial ministry internship, was assigned to First Baptist Church of Raleigh, NC. The black First Baptist Church, located on the opposite side of the state capitol square from the white First Baptist Church. Having grown up in the South and attended white-only segregated schools, I could count on one hand the number of real conversations I’d previously had with a black person. 

We were warmly welcomed by this large congregation, many of its members educators and leaders in Raleigh’s black community. We lived in the “colored” part of town and were the only white faces at Sunday morning worship. One of my husband’s responsibilities was working with the youth. We went bowling with the group on Saturdays and met in different homes. Most of the kids planned to attend nearby Shaw University, the second HCBU in the Southeast. One teen, Johnny, had an amazing baritone voice and hoped to study music. 

To the topic of library cards. I was a reader. I applied for a card at the Raleigh Public Library. I knew it was the white library. That’s what to this day makes me feel so guilty: I knew. But I wanted to read.

John Lewis’s story is a harsh reminder of my choice. The youth we learned to know and love that summer had high aspirations, intellect, and talent, but they only had access to Raleigh’s “colored” library, with its sparse collection. What other resources were denied these boys and girls, many of them with Lewis’s potential?

They probably have grandchildren by now. Yes, there are laws that make public places like libraries available to all, but fifty-plus years later racism still thwarts the aspirations of black youth. Meanwhile, my white-woman privileges, if unexamined, allow that obstruction to continue. An abundant supply of books, movies, and TV shows makes that scrutiny possible. But taking advantage of the offerings requires motivation and sometimes a willingness to leave my zone of comfort.

In 1964 I knew that because I was white I had access to rows and rows of shelves filled with the latest and best of published works, historical documents, and daily newspapers. I knew that church members, many of them better educated and more intelligent than I, dare not even enter that building. Yet I weekly checked out books.

 John Lewis was denied a library card. He has died, but he inspires us all, black and white, to continue his work for justice.

A writing success

RANDALL KENAN SELECTS NANCY WERKING POLING WINNER OF THE 2018 ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE

(31 August 2018)

Nancy Werking Poling is the winner of the 2018 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize competition for “Leander’s Lies.” Poling will receive $1000 from the North Carolina Literary Review,thanks to a generous NCLR reader’s donation that allowed this year’s honorarium to increase (from the previous award of $250). Her winning essay will be published in the North Carolina Literary Review(NCLR) in 2019.

Editor Margaret Bauer reports that submissions for the competition doubled from previous years. A total of 15 finalists out of 63 submissions were sent to this year’s final judge, Randall Kenan. Kenan is the author of several books, including the nonfiction Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, and will be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in October. Kenan selected Poling’s story for the 2018 Albright Prize, saying, “It was love at first read to me, and stands out in originality and in tone.”

After years of living in many parts of the country, Nancy Werking Poling reports that she is “now happily settled in Black Mountain, NC, an area where nature and history are honored.” Historical influences are woven into her 2017 nonfiction book, Before It was Legal: A Black–White Marriage (1945–1987). Poling is also the author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman (2010), a short story collection, and Out of the Pumpkin Shell (2009), a novel. She has recently completed another novel, currently titled “Wrap Me Tight in Earthen Cloak,” which is set in North Carolina and inspired by the question: During this period of environmental crisis, how do I make my voice and life count?

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.

Is Hillary so dishonest?

Mom was the nurturer, greeting us when we came home from school, preparing our meals. Dad was the boss, the enforcer of rules, often with the palm of his hand. This clarity of roles gave us a sense of security.

Nowadays Mom goes to work and Dad has relinquished much of his authority. The old order has shifted in other ways. If we’re white or heterosexual we’ve lost assurance of our superiority. Black and white intermarry; homosexuals marry. On the global stage the clear issues of the Cold War have vanished, replaced with a militant Muslim enemy that strikes unexpectedly. Our lifestyle of big cars and unlimited use of electricity is affecting Earth’s climate, a science beyond our comprehension.

We older folks yearn for Mom and Dad—as they once were. Enter Donald Trump, the authority figure who’ll return our country to how it used to be.

But Hillary—she doesn’t behave the way a mother’s supposed to. She’s not a national nurturer but a trained lawyer who as a senator voted on complex issues; who as Secretary of State negotiated with leaders of other countries. She’s been hardened by battle.

Anyone who’s seen TV commercials, even if they’re muted, recognizes the little green creature advertising Geiko and associates the Statue of Liberty with Liberty Mutual. The purpose of repetition in advertising is to keep a product in the viewer’s mind, to repeat an idea so often that it’s finally accepted as truth

So it has been with Hillary’s reputation. Since 2008 Republicans have anticipated her candidacy in this election and committed themselves to eroding the perception of her character. They exploited the Benghazi attack, sponsoring multiple investigations and repeating the message that she couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth. They exploited her using a private email server, though other government officials have done the same. All the while the press allowed itself to be manipulated into continuously analyzing opinions about her integrity—until her dishonesty was taken as fact.

I’m not suggesting Clinton is beyond reproach. Her experience is so broad there’s something in her voting record or foreign policy actions to offend anyone. I am convinced, though, that public perceptions of her dishonesty are the result of a non-stop propaganda campaign.

Our job as voters in this election isn’t to choose the most nurturing mother or the most intimidating father. It’s to select an individual who understands and supports the Constitution, who appreciates the complex web of international relationships, whose knowledge is respected worldwide.

A person who firmly believes in “liberty and justice for all.”

Pope Francis and the world beyond our experiences

Every Friday my high school English teacher tested the class on a list of vocabulary words. Lately one of those words has been swirling around in my mind. Solipsistic: being self-centered; thinking our own experience is the only reality.

Until this past week the 2016 campaign—who’s ahead, who’s lagging, who made some ridiculous statement—had lured many of us into thinking American politics, “our own experiences,” defined reality. This belief both entertained us and fueled our animosities. It led us to ignore the rest of the world—except those we fear.

Then Pope Francis arrived and called us out of our solipsistic thinking.

Not by scolding us or denouncing our sinfulness. He did not preach against a self-centeredness that builds a wall along our southern border, or cuts funds to our children’s education. He did not chastise us for denying dignity to those imprisoned or the homeless. Instead he reminded us of our heritage. Before Congress he cited four individuals who exemplify the best in our character: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Many of us listened and said, “Ah, yes, we ARE people of compassion, courage, hope, and spirituality. People who value all human life and work on behalf of others.”

During the interfaith prayer service at Ground Zero, Muslim and Jew recited a litany of peace. A stage full of women and men whose lives are grounded in different religions prayed to the One who guides them. Francis, by his presence, called us all to open our minds to others’ faith traditions.

Throughout his homilies the Pope reminded us that every refugee has a human face, a personal story. Every individual who lost his or her life because of the attack on 9/11 had a human face, a personal story. Every person trying to survive homelessness has a human face, a personal story. Every woman and man in prison has a human face, a personal story.

Solipsistic: being self-centered; thinking our own experience is the only reality.

Francis came to us not as a man of power wanting to convince us that his reality is the correct one. He came not as a saint, but as a servant. Not as a solipsist, but as one who lives for the world. He reminds us of compassion and generosity, virtues that are part of every culture and religion when practiced with humility.