Restoring our Memories, Restoring Ourselves

The work of remembering takes patience, persistence, and an attention to detail. So I am finding out as I painstakingly sort through almost four hundred photographs from my mother’s stay on Cyprus in 1923-25. As I brighten, crop, repair, and clean these old photographs sometimes I see a figure in the background that I hadn’t seen before. I see a smile on my mother’s face that I later saw when her hair was gray. I see a profile in my grandfather, the Superintendent at the

Grandmother Ruby Jackson with the family of the Mukhtar (Mayor) of Tera, 1924

Grandmother Ruby Jackson with the family of the Mukhtar (Mayor) of Tera, 1924

Skouriotissa mine, that lets me know that he has always been in me, even when I didn’t recognize it. And then there are the innumerable faces of people I never knew—of smiling women hauling mud for bricks, and grimy men in mine tunnels probing veins of copper amidst the rubble of explosions. I see an old priest standing before the little Church of “Panagaia Skouriotissa,” whose work in worship and in caring for these miners’ families I will never fathom. “Who were they?” I ask. Is there someone on the island or abroad who can remember who they are? Have I unknowingly been talking to their descendants as I visited to get a feel for the land, the people, the culture they passed on or that died out with their demise?

But here is a ruined castle I remember, now cleaned up for tourists. And a medieval church that has become a mosque, a harbor that I recognize, now crammed with different

My mother and uncle with Governess Nina Bayada, a neighborhood friend, and "Daisy" at the Skouriotissa stables

My mother and uncle with Governess Nina Bayada, a neighborhood friend, and “Daisy” at the Skouriotissa stables

boats, but still protected by an old stone quay. These mute landmarks only want me to hear the comments from my mother’s family as they sat by the sea on that rock, the squeals of delight among her girlfriends whose summer sun suits tell me of a birthday party or an afternoon spent swimming at the shore. And here’s the sheep they called Daisy, indulging their patting hands among their myriad of animals wandering around their compound at the mine. I see but I do not hear, or smell, or touch. And even then, I only see a black and white snapshot, a mute slice in time, a sliver of the spectrum of their colorful life.

It is like the mining work itself, digging into the earth that holds us up, nourishes us with food, delights us with its sparkling beauty, awes us with its tremendous power. In mining for these memories I restore lost pieces of my self, my temperament, my scientific wonder, my perseverance in a project. And I hope

Women digging mud for bricks near Skouriotissa Mine

Women digging mud for bricks near Skouriotissa Mine

that I am helping to restore the memory of a people, now torn apart by haunting memories going back to Homer’s time, to successive empires — Roman, Crusader, French, Venetian, Ottoman, British—that have molded layers of their memory, like the metamorphic rock that makes Cyprus a Mecca for geologists. Yet the rock itself still is that self-same substance with its own intrinsic properties, the properties that make it Cypriot.

Even as I have worked on these pictures and documents, people have come to me thorough the internet, the mails, and in meetings on Cyprus to help me understand the meaning of these pictures, these places, these people. Just as my wife and I increasingly rely on each other to hold together our personal memories, so this larger network is helping to reconstruct this wider memory of which I am a part.

The work of memory is a work of restoration. So I am trying to exercise in some small way a work of restorative justice, of restoring rightly what was before, even though it itself rested on layers and layers of previous destruction and restoration. Just last night we saw “Woman in Gold,” in which Helen Mirren powerfully portrays the search by Maria Altmann to recover the long-lost art treasures stolen from her family by the Nazis in Vienna. Though the painting of her aunt by Gustav Klimt was valued at well over 100 million dollars, it was finally the healing of her memory which became the prize of her decade-long struggle. Michael Lapsley, the South African priest who lost his hand and an eye in the struggle against Apartheid, has spent the rest of his life in what he calls “The Healing of Memory,” for without a healing of memory there can be no restoration of social relations, of law, of our relation to the earth. His work has made a powerful impact on thousands of people traumatized into amnesia by the horrors of violence and war.

As I dig into this mountain of memory for a people and for my own family, I am also working with my sister as she finds proper care for her husband, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, in which the memory of a person is whittled down to its infant core and slowly flickers out in a return to the spark that began his or her life. It is a cruel disease, whose ravages for the afflicted person are incomprehensible, but whose destruction of the bonds with friends and loved ones robs us of what makes human community possible—a common memory.

To remember, to remember rightly, to remember in common—this is what it is to be human and to be capable of love as well as forgiveness. In the restoration of memory, even its most humble remnants, we engage in the work of what Jews call “Tikkun Olam”— the healing of the world.

Posted in Ecology, Ethics, On Writing, Personal Events, Restorative Justice | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment


I can’t get it out of my mind and I don’t want to. On June 19, Dylan Roof, the confessed killer of nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was arraigned in court and listened to passionate  words of forgiveness from Nadine Collier, Anthony Thompson, and Felicia Sanders, relatives of three of those he had killed. Their words of forgiveness, spoken with breaking hearts and soaring spirits, have planted seeds deep into the soil of America—seeds that are already bearing fruit in steps to remove racist symbols of our past from our public life.

And so the power of forgiveness is once again in our public conversations. This was not the forgiveness that is conditioned by the apology and remorse of the perpetrator of a wrong. It was a cleansing of a wound, an offering of a new beginning, both for those deeply traumatized by such a heinous assault but also for the accused killer and for the communities that had fostered, guided, and provisioned him for this crime. It was an act of love so that the hatred of the killer would not find lodging in their own hearts.

For most of us forgiveness is part of a transaction: You give me apology and I will give you forgiveness. Balance cleared. Debt erased. But this forgiveness, as so many have commented, comes from embrace of a prior act of God, the source of all new beginnings. Christians, in seizing on the conviction that God has started things anew in spite of human destructiveness, are simply trying to channel this power to others. The members of Emanuel Church (Emanu-el, “God with us”) have schooled themselves for years to the habits of forgiveness. They were ready to forgive in spite of their sense of grievous loss. These were not words within a calculation of apology and forgiveness, they were words that re-start relationships on a new level built on a different orientation of gratitude rather than resentment, love rather than fear.

At the same time that murder and forgiveness were overturning business as usual in American culture and politics, Greece, and with it the entire European Union, was entering its own cataclysm. I couldn’t help connecting these seemingly separate events, because they both were struggles over the forgiveness of debts. The forgiveness of Emanuel was entirely re-setting the debt and repayment world of retribution, violent reprisal, and apology-driven forgiveness. Greece was struggling with its own indebtedness and the inability of the world financial system to release itself from the destructive balance sheets of financial retribution.

Debts. That is what Jesus’s famous prayer ask forgiveness for. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (How ironic that we have these words in Greek!) Many of us mask this over by saying “Forgive us our trespasses,” but the Greek word “debts” (opheilimata) is embedded in the very concept of the Hebrew Jubilee, in which debts are released every fifty years, signaling a new beginning for the whole society.

Whether in the underlying economic subordination of American racism or in the trauma of Greek citizens today, the “debts” and the whole system of indebtedness that this radical forgiveness supplants are at the root of our problems of social justice.

So, if you’re a Christian, the next time you say The Lord’s Prayer, say “debts” and remember what the saints of Emanuel church have testified to. And fold in a prayer for the loosing of the unpayable debts that burden generations of people. It’s not everything that needs to be done, but perhaps it will open us all up to the new beginnings we need. Let me know what you think.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Restorative Justice | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Journeying Toward Reconciliation

Last October I wrote about the development of Reconciling Conversations at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, here in western North Carolina. At the time, we had put together a little book of stories from members of our congregation about their life, struggles, and faith as Gay and Lesbian members of our church, as parents, friends and families of Gay and Lesbian people, and asJourneying toward Reconciliation wrap cover “ordinary members” who had experienced a long journey toward greater acceptance and understanding of people of differing gender identities and sexual orientations. At the same time, we put together a series of nine presentations on psychology, Scripture, theology, and ethics to enable people to explore some crucial dimensions of these complex matters.

The experience exceeded our greatest expectations, with over fifty people attending for not just nine but eleven weeks of meetings throughout the fall. At the same time, people picked up the book for themselves, their families, and friends. Groups in Georgia and South Carolina began using it in churches and high schools to inspire them to write their own stories. We had a second in-house printing, which started going fast. Marshall Jones, one of our conversation group, with experience in editing and publishing, began to put together an edition through CreateSpace, the Amazon self-publishing arm. With a heightened attractiveness, covers, and minor editing—but the same stories—it is now available on-line for only $3.60.

Here is what the back cover says about the book:

Our congregation lived in silence to the pain and suffering of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered people in the midst of our families, friendships, and community. Inspired by simple gatherings of prayer and conversation, we began to talk to one another in circles of trusting and confidential conversation. Out of that experience we decided to put together this book of stories from members of our own congregation.

The response to these stories has been so overwhelming that we have now issued these stories as a book for the general public, available through and other book retailers.

We hope this little book can serve as a starting point for telling your own stories as your communities and congregations struggle toward a life of more acceptance, openness, forgiveness, and vitality.

Indeed, you’re invited to start your own conversations, story-telling, and explorations in your own context. The book contains a number of references to resources about circle conversations, roundtable worship, and LGBT ministries. The stories themselves are available online at our blogsite. We have set up a Facebook page where we hope to put links soon to our presentations from last fall, which are now on Give us a “Like” and let us know what you’re doing.

Here’s how to get the book:

Go to or to

Pass it on. Widen the circle. As our church motto says, “Welcome ALL. Grow in Faith. Engage the World.”

Posted in Ethics, Personal Events, Restorative Justice, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged | Comments Off

Craft Between You and Me

There’s a connection between woodworking and writing. One of them is the attention to craft. I am presently making a long-overdue desk for my son Eric, who has been using a table meant for the outdoors for a couple of years now—not exactly loaded with drawers or finished off with a smooth top. When you’re making cabinetry you have to rout out a million mortises and fit in their matching tenons. The drawers are done within 1/32nd of an inch. The whole thing has to be matched up precisely, including some attention to grain, figure, and color. No one notices all of this except other woodworkers and, of course, God, who always checks out the insides of the mortises. It’s the overall look and the smoothness of the drawers that people look for. And, of course, they want it to be useful, with the drawers the right size and a top that can accommodate whatever electronic paraphernalia will occupy it over the years.

Well, it’s the same for writing. I’m doing prose right now. It’s hard for me to switch back and forth, just as I find it hard to switch between woodturning and cabinetry. But in either case there are demands of the appropriate craft—the unseen manipulations that lie behind the piece and make it work or appeal to the eye. The point is that in both kinds of work there is an underlying craft that constantly challenges us toward precision, elegance, and simplicity—a simplicity both in movement and in construction. So it’s not surprising that from time to time I am caught by a book about the craft of these endeavors—in this case, the charming volume by Mary Norris entitled Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Norris has been a copy editor at The New Yorker for more than thirty years, preserving its legendary attention to the grammar, syntax, spelling and factual exactitude that has characterized its pages from the beginning.

The title grabs the attention of all of us who squirm when friends and famous speakers alike turn the required accusative after “between” into a nominative “I” just because… Well, why? Just because it’s a compound accusative? Because they want to maintain their nominative (and nominal) agency in the fact of a preposition? While the psychology is unclear, the rigor of craft is clear: “between you and me.”

And then, there is poor “who” and “whom.”Like “me,” “whom” has practically bitten the dust. And, of course, if you have been rigorous about the accusative in “between you and me,” why do you accept “It is me?” Well, it’s because of usage. With that arabesque you enter the warfare between the “descriptivists,” who argue that we accept usage that comes to predominate (who decides that?), and the “prescriptivists,” who argue for an elite of referees (The New Yorker, especially, but Mr. Webster’s shadows as well) who tell us what is right. With irrepressible humor and balance she at least illuminates the controversies, even if she can’t resolve them.

After dealing with these Sisyphean problems, she turns her eye and pen (or is it key?) to the many other pitfalls and pratfalls of the English language. Writers in English have to deal with the horrendous problem of spelling “correctly” the multitude of words from many languages that have come to populate our discourse. Good luck with that, in spite of the labors of Mr. Webster and his heirs.

And, of course, there is the ubiquitous apostrophe, whose misuse goes beyond the hand-made signs on the roadside. Whether used correctly or not, its very existence is now threatened by the US Postal service and the internet. There is also the vexed question of when to use a hyphen in a compound adjective. Or when to use a dash, a hyphen, a semi-colon, or, you guessed it, a comma. For that we need a comma queen to decide for us. She doesn’t have to be someone out of Alice in Wonderland. She can be someone as charming and funny as Mary Norris.

So, it’s not only woodworkers who face the question of whether to plane or sand, drill or carve, rout or gouge. And speaking of tools, she rounds out her scintillating discourse with a discussion of pencils—real pencils made of wood and graphite. What hardness is preferable, not to mention available? How should you sharpen them? How many do you need? She even has a delightful report on an actual pencil sharpener museum in Ohio. Someone who loves her craft can’t help but treasure her tools as well.

In all of this craftwork, you have the competition between the rationality and logic of our minds and the demands of the wood (or language) itself—its myriad qualities, its structural properties, and the use for which it is intended. Language, like woodworking, has to produce an object that is both useful and beautiful. But this beauty and usefulness must also be embedded in a mathematics, geometry, and logic if it is to be enduring. Our language has to bear the burden of rational thought as well as aesthetic exuberance. Like any good cabinetry, it has to connect its elements in a way that communicates to other people well beyond our voice, touch, laughter, and tears.

And this is what craft is about: the activity of transforming objects, whether words or wood, in a way that can form a world, a common ground through which people can be related to one another over time. In a time that is devoted to consuming and “revolutionizing” that common world as fast as possible, leaving us alienated and lonely, we need to devote ourselves to the craft that builds them.

That concern leads me to the next book I’m reading: The World Beyond Your Head, by Matthew Crawford, the same motorcycle repairman who wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft. I talked about his work in Sawdust and Soul. I’ll write about his latest reflections, with as much craft as I can muster, next time around. Meanwhile, I think I’ll send this to Queen Norris. I’m sure I didn’t get the commas and hyphens quite right in this piece. But after all, it’s just a blog, right?

Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs, Woodworking | Tagged , , | 2 Comments