Mining Memories on Cyprus

My co-author John de Gruchy and I have sent off our book Sawdust and Soul to our publisher (to the “typesetter,” our editor said!). If all goes well it will appear this winter and you’ll hear more about it then. And so I can return to my work about the mine in Cyprus and the life there of my mother’s family. We visited in 2012 (you can check out the blogs under “Travel”) and are now set to return in February of 2015. At the same time we will take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to visit the ancient wonders of Egypt. There will be more about that later. Right now I want to reflect on the Cyprus work, which I am calling “Mining Memories on Cyprus.”

This phrase has stuck in my mind because I am indeed going thru the work of digging out memories that have moldered on paper and photographs for almost a century. Some have been extended to me by relatives, some have been hidden in materials I already had. Not only is this book about mining at the world’s oldest copper mine, it is about mining my memory. It is archaeology of the heart.

I recently discovered that a plain black journal book that I thought was one of my great-grandfather’s diaries was in actuality a daily log by my grandfather, who was the mining engineer at Skouriotissa mine. Indeed, it records in terse, matter-of-fact entries, the decisive and traumatic conclusion of his work there in 1925. On page six I find this set of entries for March:

18.            Fall of ground N. C Blk- C.D. stopes between 9:15 + 9:30 a.m. 10 killed

19.            Ervin Ali taken out dead on night shift

20.            Salih Imbrahim taken out 10:00 am.

Ahmed Shiali out 3:00 pm.

Behardin Niazi out on night shift

Hassan Mulla Ramoding “            “            “

22.            Moustafa Hussein taken out 1:00 am.

25.            Andreas Vassilia out in afternoon last body.

While accidental death has plagued mining throughout the ages and still does today, this catastrophe pointed to major issues in the whole operation that led to my grandfather’s departure as well as of the director of the mine 09 Alexander Gnoutoffin the ensuing months. These people — both the dead and the living — were not just names in a book. We have several pictures of the miners he worked with, complete with their names. They spoke Cypriot Greek, Turkish, Russian, Cornish, and English – at least those are the ones I know – but they were engaged in a common work that brought out their best and their worst.

In a later entry about his day of departure he records that one of his employees, a “White Russian” named Alexander Gnoutoff, by that time sporting a full beard, came into his office and smacked his cheek with a kiss to express his thanks and high regard. My grandfather, a very buttoned-down and self-disciplined ramrod of an engineer, was moved to record this little human incident.

Like the ancient bottles, flasks, jugs, and lamps they dug up at the mine, this little jewel spoke to me of the humanity of what occurred in this sweaty, dirty, and very dangerous work. So here’s just one little piece, based on his own words, that will find its way into the book.

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Alexander Gnoutoff

            prickly whiskery

            smacked me

            on the cheek.

It nearly took me

            off my feet

            in the office

            at the mine

            where we had worked and

            seen ten men in death

            dug from the stopes like Roman artifacts

            re-buried wet with mourners’ tears.

And he a refugee

            from Bolsheviks

            fled to this haven of heartache

            of sulphurous gas

            and copper ore.

And me an engineer

            my work now ended

            with his kiss


Posted in Personal Events, Poetry and Songs, Travel Journal | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Darkness and Light

We have suffered the loss and slow dying of friends and relatives in the last few months. Death has been smoking up our life like a prairie fire, inching close before retreating before the cool breath of life. It’s easy to personify Death, this non-life, because it seems to reach in and snatch away the breath of those we love, leading them away. Some go in a flash, some inch away from us neuron by neuron, word by word. And if the fire hasn’t burned our own flesh, we need only glimpse the news from Gaza, Israel, Syria, Ukraine—you name the place.

The fire taunts us to run, to hide, erase it from our consciousness. But we can also speak into it, sing out of it, and dance, paint, and play all around it. In poetry there is mourning as well as praise, gratitude as well as pain, for it is words composed to fill the darkness beyond words, the Light beyond the Word. So I share a couple of poems today through which I have tried to see through the smoke, discern the cooling water, walk into the light. These are walking sticks, if you will, that I have used to climb some steeper paths. Feel free to share your thoughts about your own in the Comments below.

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Preparing for death

it might be instructive

to go to some funerals,

see how they do

with a best friend,

feel how he’s washed

in a bath of words and music and tears

clean of the earth

ready for new clothes.

Death ruptures the life-lines of love. It cuts off our race, even when it looks like we have reached the finish line. If it is love that leads us through life, then it is also true this love takes many forms, even in the run of a beloved fish.

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            from the hidden pool

            the Salmon

            glides into the stream,

            takes the ribbon of waters

            hard against the rounded rocks,

            in turmoiled foam

            finds an opening

            into the broadening river.

Leaping in the roiling flood

            the Salmon swims

            with millions

            as with one

            to reach the cascade spume


            the Salmon

            to the ocean’s waiting arms,



            to life

            among the songs

            within God’s sea.

Astronomers have led us into an incomprehensible mystery that easily becomes a metaphor for what confronts each one of us. Each life we live is like an expanding universe of accomplishment and possibility. I’ve written poems like this before. This one is the latest permutation.

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They say the earth

            is slowing down

            perhaps a nano-


            every century


            by the asteroid dust

            the oncoming solar light

            the nothingness,

And it will fall

            in ten thousand million years

            into the sputtering sun

            reaching out to swallow it.

The say the suns

            in our entire galaxy

            will fall

            as sparks and cinders

            into the darkness

            at the center

            where all the light

            will gather

            and explode

            into another universe.

I contemplate and wonder

            as I ask

            “What did you say?”

            and mutter

            “Excuse me, I forgot your name,”

            and stumble on the curb,

            if I will fall

            in such a  cataclysm

            of rebirth.


Posted in Poetry and Songs | 3 Comments

I Really Do

I once entered a poem in a contest and received in reply (a contest that actually gave feedback!) the comment “Don’t use made-up words.” Well, that was, I thought, the point of poetry—to explore beyond the boundaries of our ordinary speech, whether by image, word arrangement, or, yes, making up a new word that reaches beyond the ordinary grasp of language. That’s why poetry is linked to song and dance, theater, and the visual arts. And, of course, if we didn’t constantly make up new words, the dictionary minders could close up shop, turn off their computers, and go home, their work completed for all time.

Making up new words like this is a kind of worldly glossolalia, a Pentecostal outpouring that communicates at levels deeper than accepted signs or meanings. It’s rooted in the deep experiential base, the “magma,” of poetic inspiration. In a time when our deepest emotions are fanned and manipulated by demagogues, corporations, and fanatics bent on violence, the poetic effort to link ecstasy and lively community is a perilous but crucial task.

So, undeterred by kindly admonitions or dangers, I sometimes have to reach beyond the dictionary. The risky effort to put our deepest loves in words is something that we have to give ourselves to every once in a while, like an annual feast. My sister’s 50th wedding anniversary allowed me to give voice to this little outburst. For after 50 years, hasn’t it all been said? Isn’t a little lift of the eyebrow, a gesture of the hand, enough? If it isn’t, you have to struggle with a poem. So here it is. And if you don’t like these words, you can make up your own!

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I murgle you,

            I really do.

I want to lahmi in your lindermoos,

            leggle in your indelgon,

Lay my head within your smawn,

            my hands around your gentle sming,

And in that lovely swellenam

            I long to touch your elt,

            to smell the sweet palloosit of your palt,

            and wrap us round with soft mallootin.

My happiness would soar to song

            if I had some better words to say

I murgle you,

            I really do.


Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs | 3 Comments

Looking for Muhammad

My writing has been completely taken up with completion of my woodworking and spirituality book project with my friend John de Gruchy, who lives near Cape Town. You’re going to hear more about that book in due course. Entitled Sawdust and Soul,” it’s a lively, we hope, invitation to reflection on craft and spirit. Stay tuned.

But in the meantime the rest of the world moves on. We recently watched the three-part series “The Life of Muhammad,” on PBS, a documentary produced by Crescent Films in the UK. Narrated by Rageh Omaar, a Somali-born British journalist, it took us on a pilgrimage through the tumultuous life of Muhammad from his birth in Mecca to his death in Medina. Brilliant scenes from those cities were threaded together with commentary from Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars, some very familiar, like Karen Armstrong, others unknown to us but equally insightful.

Omaar himself was on a quest to uncover the figure at the source of a worldwide movement that has both inspired and terrified people for centuries. Who was this unlettered recipient of the powerful poetic messages from the Core of all Being, Allah? Muhhamad’s burning desire to bring about a just peace among the warring, polytheistic tribes of his day gains bright relief against the contemporary backdrop of conflict, jihad (misused), and transformation in today’s Middle East. Muslims of today, though all proclaiming this One God, face the same problems he confronted almost 1400 years ago. As Sunni turns against Shia and both against Sufi, we all are caught up in the search for peace in the midst of seemingly absolute claims of tribe, nation, and religion.

While Muhammad resorted to military force to defend himself against attacks from his opponents in Mecca, even to the excess of slaughtering Jewish defectors from his cause in Medina, his ultimate victory was through a persistent non-violent campaign that finally brought Mecca to acceptance of a common peace within the common tent of Islam. To get the details and nuances, you need to see the series ( and read some books like Armstrong’s own Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.

How is it then that a man and a book of poetic insight and devotion could evoke both a way of peace and a way of war and violence? Has it not been the same with Jesus of Nazareth? Only a moment’s reflection recalls Christianity’s Crusades, pogroms against the Jews, bitter wars between Protestants and Catholics, genocidal extermination of the native peoples of the Americas, alongside St. Francis, Mother Theresa, and Christian abolitionists, prison reformers, and the like. Is the message meaningless? Are the heroic sacrifices of these religious founders for naught?

Max Weber, the German sociologist of religion, pointed out a century ago that every religious message, to have a historical impact, must have a social “bearer” of its vision. As St. Paul said of the Christian Gospel, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” But we don’t get to drink the wine and have its effect apart from its bearer – that’s the limit of the image. It is more like a noble family name that exists in this world only in the feeble, flawed relatives we actually live with.

And still the light flickers and does not go out. We never get its perfect illumination, whether in the divine Law (Shariah) tasted by Muhammad, the Way known to Jesus, or the Torah of Judaism. There is a way, a path, of peace, but we live most of our lives in the ditch, walking alongside it, often stuck in its mud, but knowing we are near the road, maybe even nearing a destination for which we and our tangled band of murderous loves have a promissory note. Muhammad is one of those who left a trail of notes behind, hoping we might experience what he had known in frightening and tantalizing moments in that cave high above Mecca’s violent streets.

It’s Ramadan, let us pull back a little from our fearful greed and let the Abundanct One fill our hearts.



Posted in Ethics, Restorative Justice, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , | 1 Comment