Nayu describes them to me. The haggard bodies covered with dust and blood, surging abruptly in front of the car. The limbs missing. The faces contorted in pain and disbelief. She tells me about the ranges of a scream—from the silent or guttural shock to the bellowing distress.  She was riding shotgun with her grandmother in Pétion-Ville when the earth grumbled, dust engulfing the car, swallowing the surrounding mountains flanked by shanty towns.

What music are you listening to as we start this interview?

Frightened Rabbit. A friend gave me the CD a few weeks ago. I’ve been listening ever since. The music is beautifully ragged. Like Mumford & Sons, but with more alcohol and electricity. I’m not saying anything about the alcohol consumption in either of these bands. Just the sound. I like art that’s a little ragged around the edges—and a little ragged in the center too.

 

So how does that “ragged-ness” guide how you write?

Writing my new book, After Shock, was visceral. It was in the midst of responding to the January 2011 earthquake in Haiti, where I’ve worked since 2003. (First living there, now back and forth from Florida.) The earthquake was devastating; more than 230,000 people died. This book was written in the midst of it. It’s naked, honest wrestling with faith and doubt and suffering, with God. The temptation was often to smooth things out in the writing or the rewriting or editing. But I consciously tried to keep it ragged. I distrust art or ideas that aren’t a bit messy, like reality, so I don’t want to create art like that either.

 

What right do you have to take on these biggest of questions about God and life and meaning and suffering and hope?

None. Or as much as any of us. Depends how you look at it.

 

So your book is about suffering and the people you’re with are in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and just went through a horrific natural disaster. You’re just going to make us feel like whiners, right?

No. I promise. I was overwhelmed by how much people were and are suffering in Haiti. But there is something fundamentally human in this book too. Because wherever we are, whatever our income, whatever our passport, life can crash down quickly or slowly, existentially or with a cancer diagnosis, with a child’s accident, with watching a friend gripped by depression, with seeing the aftermath of tornados on TV. We’re so vulnerable, even if life is going well. How can we be honest—and maybe find faith—in the mix of so much pain and beauty, suffering and hope?

 

What is the right time/mood to read “After Shock”?

I was talking with my brother recently and mentioned that my wife and I had the Netflix sleeve for the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us” sitting on our kitchen counter for several weeks. It’s about the “lost boys” of Sudan. He laughed and said, “Really, when is the right time to watch a movie with that title?” It’s a heavy title. When you’re happy? Not really. When you’re already way down? No way. Is mildly depressed but on the upswing the sweet spot? I don’t know. Maybe there’s something like that with my book. But I hope it’s also compelling enough, honest enough, humorous enough (my friend Owen’s dating life, for example), and hopeful enough…

 

So the right answer is…

Now! The right answer is that now is the perfect time for you to read it…maybe, hopefully, surely.

 

So the billion dollar question: Where is God in all this?

I don’t know exactly. God is distant. God is near. That’s my experience. I want a God who prevents disasters. We don’t get that, and it’s crushing and baffling. But then somehow, at the same time, it seems the same God who doesn’t prevent the awfulness is, well, sometimes we experience God right in the midst of it.

 

For example?

For me one powerful experience that I write about in the book is a few weeks after the earthquake. I went to a church that my wife and I had attended while living in Haiti. Close to the epicenter. Now it was a pile of rubble. A teacher had died in the school right beside it. I went to the church on a Sunday morning. A lot of people were there. A full congregation. The words of communion, of Jesus, “This is my body broken for you,” sounded different than ever before right next to the rubble. I felt my faith, which was on life-support, resurrect a little through the faith of the people around me who had lost everything, everything. I don’t know if God was there. It seemed like maybe so. But if God wasn’t there, if God doesn’t show up in these conditions, then I’m not interested in finding God anywhere else.

 

Lessons learned?

No. Well, the seven easy steps to… No, that’s too simplistic. But I found strength in being connected with others, with being engaged with helping instead of just being a distant observer. And I found strength in being completely honest about both the faith and the doubt.

 

What’s the band singing now?

Swim until you can’t see land,

Swim until you can’t see land,

Swim until you can’t see land,

Are you a man or are you a bag of sand.

 

Meaning?

I don’t know what they mean to say, but I like it as a picture of both the search for God and the grace of being found. So there’s my interpretation, knowing only the chorus. Swim out there. Let’s search as hard and as far—and giving every bit of ourselves to help and to find meaning and to grasp for God. And there’s grace out there, whether we get to keep swimming or whether we sink down into grace like a bag of sand.

 

What do you find?

To this point, I keep finding God and faith. But I only want that to keep coming up as the answer if it’s true. Life is an incredible search.



Some things have not changed—the crunchy gravel of the dirt roads, the rooster’s crow, the buzz of bees, the bright yellow sun of the Haitian dawn. The rest is spooky in its familiarity, yet wrong in detail. A chill settles onto the top of my stomach. Even my skin has gone cold. I drive holding the steering wheel close, among the crowds of unwashed faces and men asleep against their stomachs, the makeshift tent villages. Sometimes, a humanitarian tuck comes barreling up behind me and rides my tailpipe.

This has been a bad month for earthquakes. The Pacific is working things out with its tectonic plates in a spectacularly violent fashion, affecting those near and dear to us in dramatic and terrifying ways. Our hearts, usually occupied by the few square miles around our own lives, become pained by the vision of devastation of those we love far away, and we struggle to make sense of the distances between us, our inability to run at a moment’s notice to the aid of the victims.

I have a love-hate relationship with images. I’ve written about them before, in a more personal context. But every massive quake or tsunami or hurricane in the era of the 24-hour news cycle becomes one more opportunity for me to dip into helpless depression, a feeling of impotence. The horror that we all experienced watching September 11 unfold internationally, I still remember with crystal clarity. I also remember the depressive episode afterward, culminating months later with me jumping in a car alone for a road trip, trying desperately to shake the grip of helplessness that had strangled me since September.

Our own Zara is in the middle of the most devastating event of her life, her world having been literally shaken to its foundation. I can only watch with grim respect as she answers her own need for understanding by writing it down and sending it to the rest of us via the wonder of internet connectivity. And in the face of this most recent earthquake, Japan’s northeastern shore being washed away by an unimaginably horrifying wave, I find myself torn in twain.

My son goes to a Japanese immersion school in Portland. Every day, he goes to school and interacts with his Japanese teachers, and a host of interns who, for one year, elect to uproot themselves from Japan to learn how to be teachers in the United States. The interns are woven into the fiber of our school: we have to do fund-raising, an impossible amount of it, every year to bring our interns here, and every year the community rises up to pull us through the financial gap. They live in our houses, they celebrate holidays with us, come to parties with us, share meals and laughs. They become family.

We’re saying good-bye to this year’s Japanese interns tonight at a party thrown for them. They will perform for us, we will give them awards, there will be Taiko drumming.

But I’m not sure it will be so celebratory.

As the first video of Japan was coming in last night, my husband and I watched the tsunami roll in over a tiny town. It was gripping and slow, the first wave having already flooded the area, the surges behind creeping up to continue the brutal work of the leader. The journalist in the helicopter above must have been dazed: every time he turned the camera to the sea, there was wave after wave, lined up like battalions, ready to smash into the already wracked earth below. On live television we watched as entire neighborhoods were washed up into the interior, cars, planes, houses. At that distance one can imagine that these are but toys, but we know with grim certainty that those cars and houses belong to people who are also being washed away.

I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. I’m not being useful if I just fall into the trap of watching the videos roll in with the same regularity as the tsunami surge to shore. I’m only creating that special fragility in my own psyche where the darkness can enter and take hold.

So my heart goes on being pained and open and broken on behalf of the victims, but I willfully turned off the video this morning when I could feel the chinks in my armor start to give way. The video is too visceral, too overt. And I wonder if we, those of us so far away, are actually experiencing shock–misplaced because the horror is not ours.

I understand the need for the images to get out. It makes our world small, and we reach with tiny hands across the breadth of the ocean. We rally our resources to aid strangers, we donate money and send rescue teams, we wish we could do more, but do whatever we can to bridge the space between. But I feel the media fatigue already. I’m turning off the video storm surge, and going to the party for our Japanese interns tonight instead, to ask them what they need, what we can do, maybe just listening to them talk.

I can do nothing else.



Before I became a writer, I wanted to be a photographer. I walked the streets of Haiti, looking for that perfect picture, always aware of light–the soft, gray light of a foggy or overcast day in Port-au-Prince, the light of a Jacmelian sunset, or the bright, harsh light of a noonday sun in Léôgane. The mere mention of these places ignited my imagination. I loved the very sound and shape of these words.