As I near completion of the text of “Mining Memories on Cyprus,” I turn to the task of reflecting on what it means to try to recover a dimly-lit past for the sake of future generations. I do this in the midst of the horrendous forced migration of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and central Africa to Europe’s beckoning peace and relative prosperity. I write with a sense of deep connection to the island that sits in the midst of this tragic struggle. I seek to remember my own family’s connection to a mine on this island that must sail like a small boat on an enormous sea of global markets it cannot control. With each photograph I have repaired and enhanced I enter into conversation with my grandparents who took it and with those who reach out to me from the photos with their smiles, their hard-worn features, their flowing dress, the beasts of burden they employed.
It has not been merely a task of reconstructing a past but of reconstructing my own self and the way I move in the present. A dialogue with our past is a conversation with ourselves in the present. It is rehearsal for the next step we take in our lives.
A distorted past can distort our future. I am thinking of the people who have taken over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, not far from where my wife Sylvia grew up. They are re-enacting a mythic past of rugged ranchers wresting the land, not from their original inhabitants, but from a national government. Armed with rifles and threats, they step out of a Western movie into a world they seek to remake to fit the errant script embedded in their memory.
I think of the continual reconstruction of the narrative of Africans who were forced to come to this country as slaves. Over and over again, as European Americans erected new roadblocks, they persisted in the task of recovering the people whose identity and dignity could never be extinguished by the slaver’s lash, the Jim Crow laws, the prison gulags of America. And now their past—our past— will soon contain a First Lady in the White House and a son of Ireland, Kenya, and America.
With each birth the work of memory begins again. With each death we add another chapter. But every chapter we add to the story, every brick we add to the edifice of understanding, is but a fragment. We have to add the mortar of imagination to fill in the cracks, bring the pieces together, try to make a coherent whole out of the materials at hand. We are fragments working and reworking fragments, working with the hope that we can make a contribution to a whole we cannot see.
and their parents
and their parents
live as fragments
in muddy layers of our minds.
some go missing.
Some have jagged edges
slicing at our fingers
if we probe too deep,
If they rise to lie within the furrows of imagination
sometimes we can see connections
see forgotten lines
where things once worked together.
If we’re lucky
and are patient
we can mend them into faces, forms, and fantasies,
Put mosaics back together,
form a plate that people ate on
craft a pitcher pouring wine,
piece together pictures of a meal,
Put our fingers on the pulse of life that petrified
and was buried
and emerged again
to form the lattice of our lives.