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I am filled with a rage fueled by sadness. Rage like a sourdough mother, a lump of material from which my outbursts grow. I cannot adequately express my emotions. My spectrum is happy to angry. The points between, obscured. This sourdough mother journeyed with me from my Irish childhood and has accompanied me across two continents and through several long-term relationships and two marriages. Its raw materials are to be unearthed in the fights and arguments of my childhood, long forgotten, but somehow embedded in my subconscious, dormant but alive.

Listen. Happiness? It just looks different on people like me.

                                            —Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

 

 

In Ithaca, New York, Tibetan prayer flags hang from the eaves of rambling Victorian houses, and quaint little carriage houses, and dilapidated A-frame houses with Pabst beer cans lining porch railings. Their lilting red, blue, orange, white, and yellow squares make no sound in the breeze, so thin and soft is the translucent fabric. On Aurora Street, in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies sits nestled in a nondescript turn-of-the century house painted a deep burgundy with gold trim. The prayer flags alight the house like year-round Christmas decorations. Down the narrow alleyway running just behind the monastery, Cascadilla creek burbles over shalestone, plastic bottles, discarded road signs, and outposts of tall, thick grass that curve like spider plants.

Dear Dust

Where have you been all this time? I really missed you!

Dan C

 

Dear Dan C

Nowhere. I trust, given the circumstances, that you will not be too offended when I confess that I did not particularly miss you.

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.



Dear Gloria circa August 2000,

I am writing from the future. Ten years ahead in fact.

I’ve seen all the movies and read all the cautionary tales that warn about the negative effects altering the past could and most likely would have on the future, so I want to be really careful here. It’s important that I impart a few words of advice, but, though there are aspects of my life today that I would love to undo, there are many aspects that I wouldn’t change for the world. I have no desire to try to alter your path. I wouldn’t wish any of your choices be different. My goal here isn’t to warn you against doing what I’ve already done, but to arm you with tools that I’ve only just begun to collect and use.