This post was originally written late on Friday 11th November 2016, after a week of struggling to come to terms with the American election result, only to hear that afternoon of the death of poet/songwriter/musician Leonard Cohen. Adjusting to that news with a glass of wine at the ready, and Leonard’s London Concert double album playing loud enough to send the cat and dog scampering for cover, the post originally began, “Just when you thought events in the world couldn’t get any worse … we hear news that Leonard Cohen has died…”
“Anthem” Leonard Cohen, Auckland 21 December 2013 (his last concert)
Well, events in the world invariably can and do get worse, and sometimes a wee bit close to home. Within little more than 48 hours North Canterbury and Wellington had been rocked by a series of devastating earthquakes.
So this post, which was originally drafted as something of a tribute to Leonard Cohen, now serves as much as a tribute to people of Kaikoura and the surrounding areas – as they wrestle to find meaning and hope in the midst of what for them is, in so many ways, a broken world.
While now resident in Dunedin, I was living in Christchurch at the time of the September 2010 and February 2011 earthquakes. They left that city broken – physically, emotionally, psychologically. It was in the face of such an earth-shattering, life-changing experience that the words from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’, for me at least, enabled me to make some sense of what was happening around me – again, physically, emotionally, psychologically.
Ring the bells that still can ring / forget your perfect offering / there is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”
And yet for me, having trained and worked as a Presbyterian minister for some 15 years, having spent time as a hospice chaplain and having conducted over three hundred funerals – well-accustomed to grief as I was – the manner in which my city was dealing with its grief concerned me.
In the aftermath of the September and February quakes, and the multitude of lesser though no less unsettling quakes in-between, it seemed to me that many Cantabrians were effectively in denial of their grief. Aided and abetted by the City Council, EQC and the various other bodies charged with returning the city to some form of normality, the city was displaying an almost indecent haste to rid itself of any sign of the earthquakes’ destruction. Invariably citing health and safety concerns, damaged buildings – especially iconic ones within the so-called four avenues – were being demolished as soon as was feasibly possible.
And, with the demolition of those buildings – many of which had been the geographical features that had enabled us to navigate our way around the central city – we also lost our ability to grieve. We were forced into this artificial state of denial, because so much of the evidence of what had happened was being stripped from our sight. We lost our sense of place in the world.
In healthy grieving, the reality of what has happened – the death of someone (or something) we love – remains a present reality for a period of time. We are given space to grieve, to laugh, to cry, to celebrate, to share the memories that make that which we have lost real and significant. But in Christchurch, as building after building was pulled down, there was no such opportunity. The CBD was, itself, closed to public view while much of this demolition occurred. Indeed, one of the most iconic and significant buildings to be severely damaged by the February earthquake – the Christchurch Cathedral – became the very representation of this haste to hide us from the reality of our grief. If ever there was an appropriate, timeless, all-embracing symbol of what the city had lost, surely the Cathedral was it, damaged beyond repair, yet still standing at the physical and psychological heart of the city.
What more appropriate memorial could there be?
“Ring the bells that still can ring.” But not those of the Cathedral, apparently, the religious hierarchy decided on our behalf.
“Forget your perfect offering.” Since when have life, faith, our fragile but nonetheless honest attempts at meaning-making, ever been about perfection?
“There is a crack in everything.” Every home. Every heart. Every dream. Every hope.
“That’s how the light gets in.” And yet, so often, we try to paper over those cracks, silence those bells, aim fruitlessly for perfection.
Surely it is in the muffled sounds of damaged bells, in the imperfections of what we may bring to life as our offering, and between the cracks of our damaged lives that true light – and true life and hope – are to be found. And where there are bells that still can ring, let’s ring them loud and long. And through the cracks in our homes and our hills and our hearts, may a little light still shine through.
And, just because you can, play Leonard’s ‘Anthem’ as loud and as often as you like!
Max Reid: Since leaving parish ministry some twenty years ago, Max has held various management roles across the health and social service sectors, including in aged care, mental health, and currently as Chief Executive Officer with Kidney Health New Zealand. His faith, such as it is, now finds its place and purpose beyond the confines of (dis)organised religion, as he continues to ‘meaning-make’ in the face of life’s wonder, mystery and paradox.