Paradise in hell



The first year after Mark’s death, I spent as much time as I could in Athens, and Madrid, while the highlight of my trip to the USA in many ways was my visit to Detroit. I’m not entirely sure why places like this appealed to me so much – and still do – but I think it is related to the fact that they are places where the existing order has been disrupted. People are living with a very different sense of what life is about, different priorities and values. Living with my own sense of disruption, I felt more at ease with people who aren’t invested in holding things together and therefore didn’t see my devastation as a threat. There were places I could meet them, not having the same sense of fear, calamity, devastation, but understanding something of the qualities, the responses that were necessary during such difficult times.

It has also inspiring to see how people are pulling together, finding new ways of doing politics in Madrid, or organising accommodation for refugees in Athens, or rebuilding a new Detroit in the rubble of the old. I was also inspired by stories of how Chicago was rebuilt following a fire in 1871 as well as San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

The premise of Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell is that during disasters there is space in which people are able to experience deeper realities about being human. She describes a kind of joy that people express as a result of the camaraderie, altruism, and sharing that characterised people’s responses, as well as a remarkable resourcefulness and resilience.

In her accounts of disasters such as the San Francisco earthquake, Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans in 2005, Solnit is careful to acknowledge the terrible death tolls, the trauma and grief they caused. None of the accounts so far of the aftermath of the San Francisco quake, and the fires that destroyed the city include those who lost loved ones in the disaster, so it’s difficult to know how they experienced the community coming together, and what if offered them by way of support or care.

This interests me as I’ve been thinking about pain, about my own, and that of others, and what we can do when we encounter it, what happens in those encounters, and how we can negotiate them. I recently saw the Nick Cave film One More Time With Feeling, about the making of his album, that included painful accounts of the trauma and grief he and his family experienced over the death of his son. So much of what he said about loss, about being changed entirely, about finding paradise in hell resonated with my own experience. It was strange to feel that words and thoughts so close to your own were being spoken by this remarkable character who appeared larger than life in black and white on the screen right in front of me.

The following weekend, I was asked if there had been anything I had learnt while grieving that I valued, anything that I treasured, even though it had come out of intense pain. I respected the question, but found it hard to answer, because of the strange dynamics of those terrible places. Yes, you can find beauty, yes you can find communion with people, deeper connections to the essence of humanity. But I haven’t yet found a satisfactory way of holding both realities, which seem to coexist and remain so very distinct. You might find something of paradise there, but that doesn’t mean it’s not hellish, and yet you can’t deny the beauty of the good things you encounter. Somehow we need to acknowledge and be present to both.

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