As Notre Dame Burns

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

I’m overwhelmed by sadness and stunned by disbelief.  I still have gratitude.

Everyone has their own stories about Notre Dame.  This is mine.

The first time I visited Paris, in 2002, was a celebration of my college graduation with honors at age 36, mother of four who had never attended high school headed to law school. I walked four miles on the Left Bank early every morning.  I had that kind of energy back then.  Near the end of my walk, I’d take the bridge of Pont Saint-Michel over the Seine to Île de la Cité, the island in the river, and walk the quai to Notre Dame, crossing back over the Seine via Petit Pont to get back to my hotel on Boulevard Saint-Michel.  My walks back then were my form of meditation.  After I capped off my the first walk in Paris by silently communing with Notre Dame, I couldn’t end my morning walks any other way.  After only one day in Paris, I had a tradition.

When I toured Notre Dame, I did it one morning immediately after one of those long walks.  The glory of the rose window, the view of Paris from the towers, the feeling that though I was only one small part of the world, I was now part of that world reinvigorated me.  It was as if my day was just beginning.  It was as if my life was just beginning.  After the tour, in the garden behind the cathedral under a canopy of linden trees, I watched a mime paint his face to prepare for his day.  That.  Was.  Paris.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

I badly wanted to take my children to Paris.

Two years after that trip, I did.  That was my children’s first trip abroad.  Rather than obey my order to sleep on the overnight flight, they played games and watched movies while I slept.  I had great intentions but poor follow through.  Sleep deprivation rendered my kids inanimate for some of our trip.

Also, Paris was strange and unfamiliar to them.  The iconography they were familiar with wasn’t there.  Everything, down to street signs, looked different.  What was familiar to them?  The Golden Arches of McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées.  (The unisex restroom there, with its communal urinal along one wall of the room where everyone stood to wait for a stall, quickly plunged them back into the waters of the strange and unfamiliar.)

One of my favorite photos in the world is this one of them at Notre Dame.  I couldn’t get them to smile for the camera. Their father found an abandoned cloth doll, wet and dirty, cast aside on the pavement.  To get our sullen children to smile, he did something silly with that doll behind my head—I’m not sure what, but obviously it worked.

And they woke up.  As Millennials, they had one very strong visual and story connection to The City of Light: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  The 1996 Disney movie they’d watched so many times established a connection between them and the cathedral.  They were lively and excited and smiling once we got inside.  They’d reentered the world of the familiar.

Through my tears now as I glance from my computer to live television footage of the inferno, I imagine what it must have felt like for my children to be inside the real Notre Dame, even though the story they “knew” it from was made up by Victor Hugo and then filtered through the Disney lens.  One thing I know is that they were fully alive in that experience, eagerly taking every step and taking in every sight Notre Dame put before them.  I myself half-expected to see the ginger Quasimodo and sexy, throaty Esmeralda step out from around the corner.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

I have photos of my children sitting in the Musée d’Orsay with their tired heads resting in their hands.  I have photos of them in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, unimpressed by the modestly-sized masterpiece.  And then I have photos of them high up in Notre Dame, standing next to statues of chimera (not gargoyles), looking out at the city—and I mean really looking at it.  I don’t think they will have photos of their children looking out at Paris that way.  And it makes me sad.  So sad.

I know I’m not the only one aching right now.  I know I’m not the only one who physically feels the pain of this loss.  I do feel it.  I feel it in my body.  If you’ve been to Notre Dame, I bet you feel it, too.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

Only now am I remembering that we have had other stunning losses of cultural and historical matter.  Earthquake, flood, fire, war, civil unrest, and terrorism—our civilization has fallen prey to all of those and more.

War.  I was just in Ireland again.  I’d forgotten that during the Cogadh Cathartha na hÉireann, the Irish Civil War, the Irish Public Records Office in Dublin was bombed.  Financial records, church records, government records, land records, military records, and more—gone.  Up in smoke.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

I’m thinking of all the people—how many of them could there have been over the centuries—whose eyes lingered over the stained-glass windows and paintings and sculptures and frescoes of Notre Dame as they learned the stories of Christianity through images because they were unable to read.  Images of Christ, the apostles, martyrs, saints, and virgins, not to mention the organ and the ten bells—gone.  Up in smoke.

Well, I think they’re gone.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

Do you remember the images of the museum in Mosul after ISIS purposely decimated it a couple of years ago?  I don’t.  I only remember that it happened.  I didn’t feel that loss in my body then, and I don’t feel it now.  I’ve never been to the Middle East, and I couldn’t name one piece of art that was destroyed, though I know it was invaluable.  I do have a solid grasp of Christianity and the art at Notre Dame.  Is it just the cultural difference that makes the pain of losing Notre Dame mine?  Maybe it’s more.  Maybe it’s that I’ve been there.  Theoretical knowledge versus experiential knowledge?  Hmm.

On a pillar of the central door of Notre Dame, the allegory of alchemy is depicted.  In this sculpture, a woman holds two books in her hand.  One book is open.  It represents public knowledge.  The other book is closed.  It represents esoteric knowledge.  Maybe there is a public level of grieving and a private one, parallels to theoretical knowledge and experiential knowledge.  We, the general public, are touched by the fire that is consuming Notre Dame as I write this, but I’m certain that everyone who has been there to experience Notre Dame has their private take, too.

If I’d never been there, I would still think this is a tragedy.  But because I have been there, I am processing this in a more personal way.  For instance, I k­­­now now that I will not be at Notre Dame one day thinking about the time I climbed those steps behind my children seeing them clearly but having no idea who they’d grow up to become.  I know I will not be able to look up at one of the bells and wonder if it’s the same one I was looking at when my son surreptitiously snapped a photo of me.  And knowing these things hurts.  I have lost something that’s not even here yet.

I’m writing this as Notre Dame burns.

My daughter texted my sons and me a few minutes ago to see if we knew Notre Dame is on fire.  And that is why I have gratitude along with my sadness.  I wanted to take my children to Paris, and I followed through.  They hold the open book of public knowledge and the closed book of esoteric knowledge; they have theory and experience; they have public grief and private grief.  They have memories of Notre Dame.  It is part of them, and now Notre Dame as we knew it is gone.  We should all be so lucky to have such private pain.

Everyone has their own stories about Notre Dame.  This is mine.




1 reply »

  1. Very lovely–and hopeful–piece, despite the tragedy. So terrible. And I think you’ve described well why this burning, more than others, has shaken so many of us Americans, Christians and non. I visited Paris once, for only 24 hours, the best 24 hours of my life thus far. I guess I shouldn’t say that because that discounts my wedding and the day my twins were born. But Paris was magic. I saw the Notre Dame just briefly and now, if I get back, it won’t be the same. Thank you for this tribute. You write beautifully.


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