When the Dust Settles – a review

A review of When the Dust Settles by Lucy Easthope, published in 2022 by Hodder and Stoughton.

Lucy Easthope is the UK’s leading authority on recovering from disaster and has been an advisor on nearly every major disaster of the past two decades. She is a Professor in Practice of Risk and Hazard at the University of Durham and Fellow in Mass Fatalities and Pandemics at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath. She advises government and disaster planners. She is part of a profession that provides a Cinderella service dedicated to cleaning up after the worst has happened. As she says, it is a hidden profession and the book is her attempt to bring this painstaking work into the light. There are stories here of love, loss and hope from someone committed to every detail of loss and all the remains of disaster. The stories are infused with a competence and compassion to inspire trust in the powers of endurance and recovery.

When the Dust Settles helps us to appreciate the inevitability of disaster and the care of responders to every single victim. It is noticeable how Lucy’s professional disaster awareness and experience is entwined with a far more personal account of crises and disasters in her own life (and her living through them). She is disarmingly honest about the difficulties, disappointments and disasters that she has faced and this gives an air of authenticity and integrity to her writing. She understands the risks of disasters and the ripple effects of disasters. Disasters don’t occur in isolation. “They domino into other disasters, and as they unfurl they become entangled with the other challenges in our lives that would have occurred regardless”. (p264)

“Disasters are about total loss. Tangible losses: of a person, a house, a place. And intangible losses: of a feeling of safety, trust in authority.” She makes use of the Welsh word hiraeth (for which there is no English equivalent) to describe the terrible mourning for the “life before”. “Hiraeth is a longing for a place to which there is no return, an echo of something that can never be found, a heartsickness for something that no longer exists and a time that can never be gone back to.”

Lucy writes: “Life after disaster is perpetual, chronic, with a pain that ebbs and flows like tides…. In the floodwaters of Doncaster and the rubble of Christchurch, I discovered a new, long, chronic loss brought about by the loss of everything. The ‘furniture of self’ laid to waste. The never ending ache of hiraeth. But these places also taught me something else. The value of a horizon to swim towards. The importance of trying to build something afterwards. But to stay living, breathing, there had to be a purpose, a future, a bluer sky.” (p124)

A lot of Lucy’s work is providing training and helping people to learn lessons from disasters. I was at the point of asking myself how clergy are prepared to minister and preach through disaster when I read about the clergy training Lucy provided at a special training day on June 13th 2017. That training was around a scenario which Lucy describes as “the sum of all my fears”, involving homes, the destruction of “furniture of self”, a tower block, fire, loss of life and concerns about the actions of local authorities and building enforcement agencies. The following day, June 14th, 129 homes in Grenfell Tower in London were destroyed by fire. At least 72 people were killed. (A few days later I was at a local high school overlooked by the flats for an exhibition of A-level student work organised by my son who was Head of Art there.)

The media often turn to local clergy for a comment when disaster strikes a community. I wonder how prepared I ever was to respond to such a disaster or to endure the long term consequences. I am now more conscious than ever that our scriptures were borne out of disasters by those who suffered them. Those scriptures contain texts that have forged resilience in their readers. Jesus’ teaching and the sorrowful discipleship path he leads his followers on were designed to help us endure disaster. For example, Jesus tells his disciples what to expect in Mark 13. There will be earthquakes, wars, injustice, betrayal, murder and hatred. These things may feel like the end and to some may signal the end, but they never are. They have been with us from the beginning, and from the beginning the people of God have repeatedly helped people live and work through the dreadful consequences.

It is striking just how many disasters Lucy refers to. So many are carefully dated, even to the minute and the moment. This reinforces the sense that life changes in an instant for those who are victims of disaster.

Lucy rather overstates the case that we are all disaster survivors now following the Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of people were relatively untouched by the pandemic, some of them making the most of the opportunity to profit from it, or using it as an opportunity to relocate or learn a new language. What is striking in the last chapter with its focus on the pandemic is the foresight of those who knew we were overdue a pandemic and how, as one, she actively mobilised proactive responses in her local community.

Her final sentence: “All the planners can do now is be the light-bearers, illuminating the traps and helping as many as they can to navigate the next steps.” (p271). When the dust settles we have a lot to be thankful for – not least those, like the funeral directors who are prepared to deal with bodies contaminated by chemicals, and others Lucy highlights as such valuable colleagues. I’m letting the dust settle after reading this book. I learned a lot, I’ve thought again and I hope I am now less inclined to bury my head in the sand of my own preoccupations as disaster strikes again (and again).

Christmas and the cost of living

This poem was inspired by a small and mighty Christmas cards designed by a friend.

Christmas and the cost of living

Why do we make
Christmas so big
when joy’s so short,
innocence lost,
when baby’s squeezed
in a one star place?

Why do we make
Christmas so big
when the word,
from the beginning
was just a whisper
kissed of God?

Why do we make
Christmas so big
when we hang the tree,
lynch the light and
tinsel tight tie
the hostage angel?

Do we there nail
our hope that in
Advent edgeway
such baby-talk
may faithful grow
mercy, love, peace?

©David Herbert

Go Back to Your Own Country

Go Back to Your Own Country

Let me tell you about countries: nobody has their own
and where we come from moves. Our mothers’ wombs
aren’t where we left them. Continents calve. Jerusalem
holds a tray full of glasses which a scrum of men take
and put back, take and put back, unworried for the weight
she must shift. Let me tell you: some of the countries
aren’t where we left them. Someone pulls a string and six
tumble from Yugoslavia’s pocket. Someone halves
Sudan like a branch over their knee. Someone crumbles
a bailey between Berlin and Germany is one place
again. Only Adam had his own country, and he could not
go back. A country is land that’s learned to disown.

Jane Zwart

This poem has been reproduced with the poet’s permission. It first appeared in Contemporary Verse 2.

If a poem has love I will call it lovely. If a poem rings powerfully true I will call it stunning. This is a lovely, stunning poem which begins so well with a request to come alongside and explain. “Let me tell you” – that is such a good way to begin a poem, and such a good way to start to complicate a racist and nationalistic mindset with the thought that wombs and countries are never where we left them.

Jane Zwart teaches literature and writing at Calvin University and co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.

Some thoughts on Exile and the Dislocated Bones of Ezekiel’s Imagination

Ezekiel is ecstatic in his prophecy. His visions are psychadelic. I wonder if it is this that brings his prophecy home to his fellow exiles – themselves ecstatic in the sense that they are far from home, removed from their stasis. His colourful language in response to God’s call and the suffering of their exile even resonates with us. For example, Ezekiel gives us the image of wheels within wheels which is the phrase often used to describe the powers that be. And, of course, it is Ezekiel who has given us the singalong Dry Bones as he explored the exile experience of dislocation and displacement and their eventual revival and replacement through the image of those dry bones.

(Here’s the Delta Rhythm Boys singing Dry Bones.)

Ezekiel sees the hand of God in exile. According to Ezekiel, it is God who drove Ezekiel and his fellow exiles out, for the sake of their safety. He sees the glory of God moving with them, abandoning the old place and travelling with them to their many places. Far and wide they are scattered and dispersed, becoming a diaspora. God is the scatterer rather than the perpetrators of violence and occupation and he scatters them to save them from the violence and occupation.

Ezekiel’s message would have created a very different horizon for the exiles. Maybe they thought that they were exiled because of their enemies or because of their shame and guilt. But here, Ezekiel is reframing their experience. For those who would listen there is the message of hope – that love is the reason for their exile, a concern for their safety, that God’s glory remains with them, and that that glory will give them fresh heart which will lead to their return.

“Those [the exiles] of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said ‘They have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession.’ Say to them: Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them [the exiles] far away mong the nations, ad though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone. Therefore say [to the exiles]: Thus says the Lord God: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered … I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them.”

Ezekiel 11

I wonder how many exiles see God as the cause of their exile, and how many see the glory of God travelling with them. Certainly xenophobic communities don’t see exiled refugees in that light as they tighten their borders against them. But let’s imagine what happens when, in the words of Warsan Shire’s poem Home, “home is the mouth of a shark”, when home is a place that is too dangerous, too dangerous to be called home, when home is no place for our gods, when they become god forsaken. The God of Exodus never settles – always ready to move in with us and move out with us. Have we got the theological imagination of Ezekiel to imagine God leading the abused, the tortured from one place of extreme danger to places of sanctuary? Have we got the imagination to see the light of God’s love in our coastal waters guiding exiles to safe havens?

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
Warsan Shire

According to Ezekiel’s ecstatic imagination the diaspora is God’s doing. It is his dislocation and dispersal. This dispersal is reenacted in our liturgy. At God’s word we go, “in peace to love and serve the world”. We are scattered far and wide like seed. We are made exiles because, in other imaginations of scripture, we are in the world but not of the world (John 17:6), sheep amongst wolves (Matthew 10:16), living in cities while calling another city home (Hebrews 11:10), praying for a kingdom like nothing on earth (Matthew 6:9-13).

Here’s Jamila Lyiscott reading Warsan Shire’s Home.

I’m inviting prayer for those in their teens – particularly these days

I’ve invited prayer in the Chester Diocesan Cycle of Prayer with a bit of science.

It is hard to be honoured by people who have seen us grow up. Jesus recognized that. “Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin.” (Mark 6:4). Is that partly because they have seen the difficulties we have had growing up?

So let’s pray for those in their teenage years.

There’s a lot happening in the teenage brain with the unused connections in the thinking and processing part of the brain being pruned away while other connections are being strengthened. The prefrontal cortex is still developing leaving teenagers to rely on the part of brain called the amygdala for their decision making.

The amygdala is all emotion, impulse, aggression and instinctive behaviour. This makes growing up through the teenage years very difficult and leads many to be ashamed and to self-harm. One way of reading Genesis 3 is to see Adam and Eve as teenagers, making impulsive decisions and growing in shame.

Growing up is difficult. Please pray for those living through their teenage years, including

  • those who are vulnerable, anxious or ashamed,
  • those who have made mistakes or are troubled or troubling,
  • those who have suffered mental health issues through the pandemic,
  • parents
  • and those in our communities who support and champion teenagers

Something surely to be recalled

I was baptised
seventy years ago today,
a lifespan away,
another drop in the ocean.

In troubled water
the Spirit dives deepest.
with arms banned
she calls in a wave

or a bubbled “beloved”
leaving that pocket of sound
echoing deep as the pulse
in the beating of my heart.

©David Herbert

Note: This poem was written in response to an invitation to write something on echoes.

For One Day Only – particularly the 11th

The Pioneers by Stephen Broadbent in Ellesmere Port, just off J9 of the M53.

For one day only

I thought I’d have some fun with numbers
today, (or is it 2day?), 11.ii.21, one month,
ten years after 11.1.11 when we launched
Headway with an image of one by one
forward-peering, prowed-standing pioneers
coupled for growing enterprise like two sides
of a coin, one complementing the other,
one complimenting the other, tied and tethered
in affection and imagination. One by one,
the perfect team, the first eleven,
the prime number no one can divide.

So it is, the perfect eleven, the perfect spell,
vowel, consonant, vowel, consonant bound
in rhythm marching time, beating heart time,
one two, one two, two one, one by one partners
like Noah’s passenger list and those first gardeners.
There is a second eleven, the mourning break,
the eleventh of the eleventh, when we remember
the one who stood with one and fell, along with
all the fallen ones, tragically flat lining
when one stood against one as betrayer,
the twelfth man making even eleven odd.

©David Herbert, 11/2/21

Headway is the title of a leadership programme I have been involved with.

A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi

A Dutiful Boy is an important book for me – it’s importance measured by the fact that one of my beautiful, dutiful sons singled this book out as my Christmas present. The book charts the pain of a gay Pakistani Muslim’s journey to acceptance, love and flourishing.

The book’s inner sleeve explains that Mohsin Zaidi grew up in a poor pocket of east London in a devout Shia Muslim community. His family were close knit and conservative. He became the first person from his school to attend Oxford University, and it was there that he found the space to become the man he was born to be.

Zaidi talks frankly about his own self-hatred and his prayers to be “different” and “cured”. The tensions and the love of Pakistani family life are well told. Throughout Zaidi is committed to his parents, brothers and his extended family of aunts and uncles and this is one of the most moving aspects of this story. The book is as much a memoir of their journey to acceptance as it is of Mohsin’s.

Counselling helped. I will treasure the exchange with his counsellor, Maureen Zaidi reports. Responding to Maureen’s questions Zaidi admits that he had thought of suicide. Maureen asked: “do you think your parents would rather a gay son or a dead son?” Zaidi didn’t know the answer. “ A dead son they could explain. It would be a moment in time and then they might move forward. They’d live with the shame of a gay son for as long as I was alive.” Then Maureen invites Zaidi to imagine a future in which he has a son.

“Now imagine your son in exactly the situation you are in now – the same history, the same conflicts, the same desires and the same fears. What do you do?”

Zaidi replied: “I grab him. I hold him tightly and tell him that he’s OK. That he is loved and that I don’t give a fuck about religion. That any God who loves me must love him as much.”

Then Maureen asks: “Now think about his sadness, what does that make you feel?”

“It makes me angry … really, really angry.”

“Digging deep into this pit of anger, I felt something shift inside me. My sense of justice kicked in. The anger felt good, powerful. Like rocket fuel. I wouldn’t be stalled by the obstacles put in my path. I would knock them down. I was surer than ever before that I would not marry a woman. I would live my life as a gay man, and, one way or another, there would come a time when I would face my family and force them to face the truth.”

Throughout this journey Mohsin remains the “dutiful boy”. There is secrecy about his gay life and there are enormous tensions along the way but there is integrity in the way Mohsin and his family will not let go of one another in spite of the pain and shame they all suffer and in spite of the distance they put between themselves.

This is a story in which all find their cure and it is a delight to read how Mohsin finds love and the freedom in which he can grow his work. Other people aren’t so fortunate and continue to struggle in cultures which hate homosexuality and seek to change, cure and deny those who are gay. Mohsin and his parents set up a support group for the families of LGBT Muslims.

In the first session his Mum said to the group: “My brother was sick and it … he has taught me a lot. We have so little time with our loved ones. Why waste it? God created my son this way and it is me who had the problem, not him.” His Dad joined in: “Children are not ours to disown, my son is not hurting anyone. He is a good person. I don’t care what anybody says. I know that Allah loves him like I do.”

A Dutiful Boy by Mohsin Zaidi was published by Square Peg on August 20th 2020

The First Photograph – a poem for these sort of times

The First Photograph

When Aylan Kurdi’s photo splashed across the waves,
it was a scoop, a spotlight on refugees, a beacon of hope
for better treatment, more welcome ways. It became
Sea Prayer for parents casting their children to sea in light vessels.
But nothing changed. It was a false dawn. Children keep drowning.
Here in Bethlehem, lives are poor, government weak.

A concrete cordon of wall dominates, not for our security mind,
but as shutter and blind to lives despised. We are occupied
by those whose minds pre-occupied by counting our threat,
known by numbers, never names. Our lives are poor,
our movement restricted, often imprisoned for raising flag,
hand or stone, getting by with our whittled olive tourist trade.

When reporters came from way out east, that was our moment,
that Aylan Kurdi flash. Three came. They’d heard our plight.
and noted our views, their reports were carried in paper news.
Their attraction, they said, was a star, a pin prick in a night sky,
inspiration for their camera and that first photograph, a baby
captured, strangely focused, fast exposed as a flash of light.

That was the image of us. It sold and sold. going world-wide,
framed, kissed and even enshrined, the light of the world,
while we still in darkness lie. There was a child, a shot in the dark.
Because of that aperture in this little Goliath walled town
where streets stay dark and soldiers still count their enemy,
we picture endurance in that light relief, that blink of an eye,
that pin prick in the night.

©David Herbert

Links to Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer and the photo of Aylan Kurdi’s body

Love never stops

This is a reflection on words from Isaiah 44: I am the first and I am the last.

As well as the first
I am the last I am
the last the victim
forgotten I am
the last is my name
my first word
the lasting word
beaming hope
for the last at last
everlasting love

This was written for the Twitter hashtag #cLectio – a hashtag used by some for reflecting on the first reading of Morning Prayer