While on a visit in Minnesota with my daughter Elaine’s family, I spied a book on her dining room sideboard. It was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. I started paging around in it and, like the introverts she describes, soon found myself immersed in its reflections on the psychological and social worlds of people who are reflective, task-oriented, small-group focused, and cooperative in their social strategies—like me (primarily) or like people who read long blogs rather than Twitter feeds.

Cain lifts up voluminous research showing that our tendency to be “inner-directed” or “outer-directed” (to use David Riesman’s terms from the 50s) is rooted in how our brain, namely our amygdala “lizard brain,” processes stimulation. Introverts function best with a more limited volume of inputs, extroverts require a large volume of inputs to feel alive. No wonder I flee from noisy restaurants! This is the biological basis for the personality trait we call introversion or extroversion.

However, how we develop this trait or disposition can take many forms. It usually finds expression in typical occupations. Introverts, of course, go into research, writing (natch!), and counseling, but they may also be concert musicians and performers, since both activities require immense amounts of solitary preparation. Morever, introverts can practice being more extroverted, learning how to give talks in Toastmasters groups or sermons to a congregation through homiletics courses. If they do, then they need to program in plenty of quiet time to recover.

While her focus is on introverts, who she feels are overlooked in our extremely extroverted culture, she also attends to ways the extroverts can come to appreciate the need for “down time,” transcendental meditation, and cooperative small group work. In doing so they can avoid the pitfalls of excessive exuberance, which contributed so much to our current economic catastrophes, or the arrogance that led American leaders into the Iraq invasion.

There is much more in the book to interest anyone who has struggled with what our culture disdains as shyness, inferiority complex, or simple weakness. But what caught my immediate interest is how much our classic spiritual virtues—humility, patience, self-denial, prayer, and cultivation of inner character—are introvert values created by introverts themselves. Little wonder that they contain such a critique of “the World” and its quest for power, fame, and domination. One is almost left with the question whether extroverts can being loving, thoughtful, and faithful. Certainly, our public religious world is awash with extroverted charismatic preachers, teachers, and organizers, but the core values of Jesus, St. Francis, or Mother Theresa are introvert values.

At the same time as I was reading through Quiet I received the proofs for my book with John de Gruchy about Sawdust and Soul. Here, too, I saw how much of my own struggle has been to balance the demands of extroverted public life with the call to quiet artisanry, even in the midst of the loud machines with which I work in the shop. I guess that’s why I don’t play and music or radio shows on top of it! I find a kinship with Ms. Cain in seeking to carve out a proper space for my own more introverted temperament, but I also have felt that we all need a balance. Our biology puts us where we are on the spectrum, and it is good to know what our basic inclinations are, but then we need to explore the other reaches of our personality as well as the social fields where one or another trait needs to be acted out. In the end, though, we need to find ways to get back to the spring of our vitality, whether it is to “curl up with a good book,” as she says, or to get together with our favorite thirty friends for an evening of idle conversation.

I hope you’ll read Sawdust and Soul when it comes out in a few months, and then talk about it with your favorite thirty friends. Meanwhile, I’ve got to get back to work on my book about Mining Memories in Cyprus. Introverts need those solitary projects…

Posted in On Writing, Woodworking, Worship and Spirituality | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Reconciling Conversations

Readers of this blog will know that I have spent many years cultivating a form of worship that places the circle of reconciling conversation at the center. This Roundtable Worship, which has taken place at First United Methodist Church of Waynesville, NC, has then sought to spin off circles of conversation around issues that divide us. Two years ago, after long conversation about the burden of sexual discrimination fostered by our churches, we became a “Reconciling Community” affiliated with the Reconciling Ministries Network, a United Methodist organization seeking full inclusion of all people in members and leadership in the church regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. This led to an expanding conversation in our church and the formation of a Reconciling Conversations Group that has sought to engage the whole membership.

United Methodists face their own peculiar problem in this regard, since they are tightly knit to a global church, with conferences (our unit of governance) around the world. While the US conferences might largely lean toward wide acceptance, those in other parts of the world, with their more patriarchal and kinship-based social orders, do not. In central Africa, for instance, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people face ostracism, harassment and even imprisonment and death. So this is not merely a matter of moving us to a principled understanding of this welcoming of ALL people, it is also a matter of our church’s connectedness and capacity for reconciliation, which we see to be at the heart of Jesus’s message and power.

As we struggled with how to proceed, we realized that it is not enough to examine Scripture, theology, ethics, and scientific findings. We needed to anchor what we did in our stories of family members, friends, and Reconciliation - Coverourselves. As we began to hear these stories, we decided to put them together in a book for others to read and talk about. This fall we are leading a series of nine study sessions on the various aspects of this challenge to our traditions, beliefs, and patterns of sexuality. We begin each session with one of the stories. Their effect has been powerful, eliciting the conversation we need to have at a deep level.

We now have a place where you can read the stories on line. The book is called Journeying toward Reconciliation: Personal Stories, of Faith, Sexuality and the Church. We hope to develop this blog site with videos of our presentations and other materials, so if you are interested you may want to bookmark it for future reference.

For some people, this is an issue that has been “settled.” Matters of law and argument are enough. However, for several billion people around the world, it is an ongoing terror in daily life. Moreover, the seeds of enmity against people because they differ in their identity and their love also reinforces a politics of male aggression, female submission, and the destruction of an expansive public realm.

Our is just a tiny effort forward, but in its process and its purpose it seeks to be a healing presence in our community. If you are active in some similar process or if you have comments about this one, please use the Comments option below. I’d love to hear from you!


Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Restorative Justice, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Southwestern Turning

When we were visiting in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in February, I got to know Rich Spellenberg, who is a fine woodturner as well as renowned botanist. Indeed, if I may put in a plug for his latest book, his  Trees of Western North America (Princeton Field Guide), one of two volumes (the other is Trees of Eastern North America, natch) written in collaboration with several colleagues, is a stunning companion for those of us who like to walk in the woods but are embarrassed by our ignorance of the trees we meet. In spite of its compendious coverage and depth, it is easy to find your way around in it, even if all you can see is a winter twig.

But this is about woodturning, once you know the trees. Rich generously gave me two bowl blanks—a small one of honey mesquite, and a large piece of redwood. Needless to say, I can’t find these on a walk in the Smokies! He also set me up with some crushed turquoise and instructions for inlaying it, southwestern style, in the wood.

Honey Mesquite Bowl

Honey Mesquite Bowl

Sylvia followed his instructions to buy an old coffee grinder ($2 at a resale shop) and loaned me her kitchen sieves to strain it into varying grades of fineness.

So here are the results. With the honey mesquite, I found out once again that you have to respect the weakness radiating from the pith of the tree. So about a half inch came off the rim. This improved the smell of my grill smoke. What was left became a nice little nut bowl. With the redwood, I capped it with a piece of walnut for contrast and then set a groove for the inlay where the two woods met. As Rich told me, it was putzy and required considerable care in sanding, but the work was rewarded with a fairly attractive embellishment. It was enough to entice me to future efforts. Right now, Sylvia has a place to put the dried flowers of autumn and I have a place for my cashews. Thought I’d share them for your eyes.

Redwood and Walnut Vase

Redwood and Walnut Vase


Posted in Woodworking | Tagged | 1 Comment

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