Finding forgiveness in God's country

When I was working on “The Class of ’65,” I learned about Al and Carol Henry, an outcast minister and his wife who moved to Koinonia with their family in 1965, the year Greg Wittkamper graduated from Americus High. I later heard that their youngest daughter, Cindy Henry McMahon, had completed a memoir about her family’s colorful and painful journey, “Fresh Water from Old Wells.” I had the pleasure of meeting Cindy last weekend at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, near Asheville, where we both made presentations and then did a program together. I’d like to tell you a little about her story.

Cindy was born in 1966 at Koinonia, a year after her father lost his pastorate in Birmingham because he had participated in the Selma voting rights march and other civil rights activism. The family came to Koinonia to lick its wounds and restore its spirit. Things didn’t quite work out that way. While they were living at the farm, Cindy’s father began to show signs of bipolar disorder. He became violent toward their mother and eventually abandoned the family to become something of a hobo. Carol and her daughters scraped by in Atlanta and then settled in Celo, a Quaker community in the shadow of Mount Mitchell, N.C., where they finally found peace and acceptance.

In our joint session, Cindy and I talked about the themes of forgiveness in our books: how she had to come to terms with her father, how Greg reconciled with the classmates who had shunned and harassed him in high school. Forgiveness, we agreed, does not mean forgetting or pretending that some wrong never happened. It’s something you do for you. Anger, Cindy said, paraphrasing a Buddhist proverb, is like a hot coal you clutch in your hand. It burns no one but yourself. Forgiveness is the act of putting down that stone and moving on.

I’ve done numerous talks and book festivals since “The Class of ’65” came out; this was one of the most meaningful. Thanks to Lucy Doll, Kathy Weisfeld and everyone with the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival for including me in your lovely event. Thanks to Cindy for sharing the stage and for writing such a fine memoir (available from Mercer University Press). And special thanks to her big sister Nancy Raskin (shown in the photo behind Cindy and me) for facilitating the whole thing and for taking such good care of Pam and me at the Celo Inn, which she runs with her husband, Randy. The scenery was wonderful, the conversation was lively, the coffee was good and strong -- who could ask for anything more?


Must read

The Georgia Center for the Book has chosen “The Class of ’65” as one of one of its Books All Georgians Should Read for 2016. Your not-quite-humble correspondent is honored to be included in this annual rite of recognition.

The list is compiled from nominations received by an advisory council made up of writers, educators, librarians, media members and others. More than 125 books about Georgia topics or by Georgia authors were considered for the latest roster. Among the 10 titles that made the cut: “Where We Want To Live” by Ryan Gravel, the man who conceived Atlanta’s Belt Line; “Blue Laws” by poet extraordinaire Kevin Young; “Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty” by Charles Leerhsen; and “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood” by Jim Grimsley. I was pleased to see Jim’s name on the news release; we shared a stage last September at the Decatur Book Festival.

There’s also a list of 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read that includes the delightful “The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk” by Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal.

The Georgia Center for the Book is the state affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book. The center is hosted by the DeKalb County Public Library and sponsors lectures and other programs promoting Georgia’s literary tradition. One of those programs will be in August at the Decatur Library auditorium to present the latests lists of books all Georgians should read.

It’s free and open to the public. 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 18. Come by and join us if you can.

A special letter

I mentioned recently that my friend Jane Lamkin had sent a copy of “The Class of ’65” to the novelist Anne Tyler. Guess what? She actually read it, in one gulp.

Jane has corresponded with Tyler since the 1980s, when she first became well-known for “The Accidental Tourist” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Breathing Lessons.” Jane thought she would be interested because Tyler spent part of her childhood at Celo, a Quaker commune in the mountains of western North Carolina, and would probably know something about Koinonia and the persecution it experienced in Georgia.

A few days after sending the book, Jane received a thank-you letter from Baltimore. “I sat down with the book yesterday afternoon intending just to read the first chapter,” Tyler wrote, “and lo and behold, I finished it by evening; it was that riveting! Gosh, adolescence is hard enough without going through Greg Wittkamper’s ordeal. He was remarkable.”

 I couldn’t agree more about Greg. Thank you, Jane, and thank you for reading, Anne Tyler.

Baptists, barbecue ... and a famous writer

I learned about Koinonia when I was working for Presbyterian Survey, the denominational magazine in Atlanta. The editor, Bill Lamkin, was skeptical when one of our free-lancers, Lynn Donham, suggested doing a story on the religious community in southwest Georgia. Bill thought Koinonia sounded a little too Baptist for a Presbyterian publication. But Presbies are pretty ecumenical, and he relented and let us do the story, which started me on the path to writing “The Class of ’65.”

I mention all this because Bill’s widow, Jane Lamkin (shown here), is a dear friend and has been very supportive of the book. Not only did she suggest that I speak about “Class” at Northside Drive Baptist Church in Atlanta last fall (where the pastor, James Lamkin, is Bill’s nephew), but she also invited me to her house recently to talk with her book club. Knowing me well, she catered the event with barbecue from Heirloom Market, one of Atlanta’s best barbecue places.

The book club is called the Pi Phi Reading Angels (!!!), and it’s comprised of members of the sorority Jane joined in college. What an interesting group of women; Pam and I enjoyed meeting them very much.

Before we left, Jane asked me to sign a couple of books. One of them, she said, was for Anne Tyler.

Anne Tyler? I said. The novelist who wrote “The Accidental Tourist” and many other good books?

It turns out that Bill, who worked for Friendship Force after leaving the Presbyterian magazine, was returning from a trip to Russia many years ago when he met a couple over lunch during a refueling stop in Greenland: a Mr. and Mrs. Tyler. They mentioned that they had a daughter who was a writer. “Would that be Anne Tyler?” Bill asked. 

The Lamkins met the Tylers again during a reunion of that Friendship Force exchange with Russia, and Jane asked for their daughter’s address. The two of them have been corresponding since 1983, Anne answering Jane’s letters in a diminutive hand on stationery with embossed initials.

I was honored to sign a book for such a distinguished writer, honored that Jane would ask. Thanks for your friendship, for your support -- and for the excellent barbecue. I think Bill, my first boss and a good and gentle soul, would be pleased.