Yesterday, a writer-client I’m working with came into my studio with news that Notre Dame was on fire. Her voice was mournful, and I’ll admit that I was doing calculations re: the proximity of my cousin G, who works at a neighboring campus in South Bend, when the writer said, “The spire is down” and then I knew she meant the French one, not the Fighting Irish one in northern Indiana that I’ve been to periodically since childhood.
She filled me in on the details and my heart sank. We turned to her work and I spent the next two hours delighting in her words and ideas, and was able—thank you Headspace app—to stay focused on the words at hand though my brain kept trying to slink back to the idea of Paris without Notre Dame, of history without that particular touchstone.
As soon as she left, I watched the footage and had a loud, honking weep. I felt all twisty with grief and briefly considered walking up the street to St. James Cathedral until I looked at the clock and realized mass would be in session and what I wanted was quiet and contemplation in a beautiful space, not words and ritual. So I cried some more, ate some peanut butter crackers, and got on with my life. Like you do.
Here’s the thing: I’ve never been to Notre Dame. I’ve never been to Paris. I’m not really Catholic. My only experience with The Hunchback of Notre Dame was watching the Disney version only because I was interested in how Demi Moore would play Esmerelda. If I’m watching a historical movie in which the English are fighting the French, I root for the English. (If the English are fighting the Irish, that’s a whole other thing.) Despite four years studying French, the only phrase I’ve committed to memory is les belles vaches du Normandie (that’s the beautiful cows of Normandy for those of you who are not bilingual like I am), and I can wish a guy I knew in 8th grade who has spent his adult life in Paris Happy Birthday en français if I double-check the spelling with Google Translate before hitting “post.”
So I’ve been thinking about why I shed more tears over timber and stone than I did over the last five mass shootings in the U.S. or the forest fires last summer, and I’ve isolated it to a few reasons why it seemed so terribly sad to me, a person who has self-ostracized from France because I fear being sneered at by Parisians who think Americans are gauche.
I am a self-reflective person, so let’s get that category of over-indulgent mourning out of the way.
Notre Dame has been on my bucket list since 1981 when I stumbled into Madame Rutkowski’s French I class in high school. I’ve always assumed at some point I would get to France. I imagined I would admire the cathedral and then make my way to Chartres, Reims, Rouen, Mt. Sainte Michel, and I would end in the Louvre and only then truly worship at the altar of art. I did not like Madame Rutkowski, and she did not like me much. But I realized later in my life that she was an incredible teacher even though most of us were mediocre students at best, and if she were still alive, I would write her a note and tell her that, thank her for making me interested in French history, architecture, art, Roman aqueducts, boules, Le Petit Prince, the sites of Paris and the fantastical way the city unrolled like a snail shell from the oldest arrondissement where I wanted to start my exploration. These are the reasons—not the language or her or even Audrey Hepburn—that I came back for French II and French III.
And so, let’s be honest, that weep was for myself. It seems clear now in the light of the next day that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes. Whether it is fixed up in my lifetime, and whether I happen to be in Paris when it’s open to the public is another story. But even if it is, I will be keenly aware that parts of it are now a facsimile and it won’t feel the same. It’s illogical, but I’ll know. When I was at Canterbury Cathedral looking at the steps that were worn away by penitent pilgrims who had crawled up them on their knees for centuries, I was moved. Those steps could be replaced with something new made to look old, sure—the same smooth, uneven dips in the stone could probably be duplicated with a machine of some sort—but I would know it was a fabrication.
Which brings me to the second reason for the tears of Notre Dame. I hate when history is lost to us. The picture that got me going in the first place was the one shot up in “The Forest” that featured all the wood that had been there for centuries. Even though I assume your average tourist couldn’t go up to that peaky bit of the attic and rest her cheek on the timbers, the idea that she could until yesterday and now she never will be able to wrecked me. Who touched those beams? Who made sure they were hewn to specifications so they fit where they were supposed to? Who got damaged backs and hands and feet moving those heavy timbers before there were mechanized pulleys and cranes? I would feel this same way if the fire had engulfed some centuries-old hovel that had housed peasants. It’s not about the grandeur—it’s the loss of that connection with people from all those yesterdays ago.
The news today is that one of the particular problems with a rebuild is that the forests that supplied the oak for that skeleton have all but disappeared because humans kind of suck and don’t let things grow when there’s a profit to be made off of old-growth forest—and sure, “The Forest” was maybe an early pillage of the forests, but I can forgive a little of that if it’s used for something beautiful and meaningful and lasting. I love a touchstone with the past, and while I’m happy to focus on how all is not lost—and how no one died—yesterday the loss seemed too much to absorb. Like an erasure of generations of people and events. Goodbye.
And finally, there is the thing that made me howl loudest when I re-watched that spire fall, wondering what would be left when the fire was quenched. What I’m beginning to realize at this late juncture in my life is my “thing”: I need for the world to be beautiful. I don’t like ugliness in general (Z can attest to this as my eye automatically goes to whatever is hideous or wrong with the city on our nightly walk), but more specifically when something beautiful dies because of natural disaster or human ignorance or arrogance, a combustible cloud of grief and rage builds inside me. I feel like Nancy Kerrigan crying WHY? after her knee was whacked, thus dashing her dreams.
We don’t really do beauty anymore, do we? Not the beauty that requires craftsmanship, forethought about future generations, purpose outside of making a buck. Instead, we do serviceable. Or interesting. Or ironic. Or provocative. We’re so busy looking forward, disdaining the past, that we don’t realize that our buildings and our sculptures and our uppercase Art has more to do with causing a stir now than it does to satisfy an inner need for beauty. So when something lovely, something painstakingly crafted via nature or human hand, disappears, it feels visceral.
I become obsessive and start harping on things like pole-barn churches being built on formerly beautiful pasture or the buildings in Seattle that have artful edifices and courtyards that are callously bowled over for un-interesting steel and glass to house the elite people who can afford a vista, with no concern about how it looks on the outside to the those of us forced to stare at it daily. The view out for the few is all that matters.
That massive, ridiculous staircase sculpture—an ode to consumerism and wealth— in New York City’s Hudson Yards is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
I don’t hate it. It’s interesting. I suppose were I to climb it the views might be spectacular, though there are certainly more picturesque and striking views in other parts of Manhattan. I can see how tired parents might love exhausting their children on those 154 flights of stairs. But there is nothing there as groundbreaking as a flying buttress. It doesn’t please the eye so much as entertain it. If it imploded tomorrow or eight centuries from now, it wouldn’t be a huge loss to civilization. I’m never going to sit on one of those steps and get chills because it feels holy, the way I once did in the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex in Buffalo (maybe the last period in the modern era when true craftsmanship was still celebrated) or get tears in my eyes when I see light streaming through the oculus in the Pantheon in Rome.
I know. I know. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
People love Portland, Oregon—they have a sort of revered affection for it that I’ve never caught. Maybe it isn’t Portland’s fault, my lack of enthusiasm for it. I have had a series of unfortunate events there beginning with my first trip when Z and I were engaged. I loved him to bits, had no question about my future with him, but I’d begun having “The Terrifications” about leaving home. Other Portland failures on that trip included my early disappointment in how much like a warehouse the famous Powell’s Books looked, when what I really want in a bookstore is a few leather wingbacks, a fireplace, and a learned Person of Letters smoking a pipe and reading some dense tome while I browse nearby.
I was similarly disappointed in my inability to locate Voodoo Donuts.
Also, we happened upon a parade of naked bicycle riders, a sight almost more disturbing than Notre Dame burning yesterday. All that pale, jiggle-y flesh daring us to find fault with it as it bumped down the street.
Subsequent trips have been no more pleasant, have included repeat disappointments with Powell’s, inability to locate the donuts, and an overwhelming sense that everyone there isn’t as interested in showering as they are in other parts of the country AND the sure and certain knowledge that my having noticed this means that I’m too square and superficial to fully understand Portland and its celebrated weirdness. The last trip, last summer, ended unceremoniously when I had a full-on panic attack while I was driving home during rush hour. My brain was fizzing and pinging because there were too many people—in my lane, on the road, on the planet—and they were sucking up my oxygen and seemed hell-bent on making sure I never ever got home.
Also, if I’m being completely honest with you—a policy of mine—I have to admit I do not really like Portland’s poster boy, Fred Armisen. He makes me more uncomfortable than naked bicyclists and rush hour traffic in an unkown city combined. And no, I don’t know why.
A few weeks ago, Z and I took the train to Portland, which was a labor of love. I was itching to see my friends from my old MFA program, who were in town for AWP. It had been five years since I’d seen some of them, more years for others, so seeing Chickpea, Quill, Geeg, and the Beard was worth whatever pain and suffering Portland was prepared to dole out.
Our trip started in Seattle’s King Street Station, which was built when things were still made to be beautiful at the turn of the last century, designed by a firm that would later go on to be associated with Grand Central Station in New York City. When Z moved here 12 years ago, it was being renovated after years of disrepair and “modernization” had wrecked it (plaster reliefs, tile mosaics, and marble replaced with sheetrock and dropped acoustical tile because when is that not a good idea?). But now, it’s grand and old timey again, and I’m sure people would argue that it’s inefficient, but I feel really endeared to the way that train travel—the tickets, the assigning of seats, the check-in and boarding process—is so analog. Everything is paper, a lot of it handwritten. All of it adds up to a sense of how things used to be and, frankly, it seemed less tedious than waiting in line to board a plane.
What was disappointing, however, is that when we were actually on the train, we were looking forward to lunch in the dining car. We were both expecting linen table cloths and Hercule Poirot, but instead we got the equivalent of concession stand and some crowded stools, so we staggered back to our seats with our hotdogs and drowned our disappointment in the view of Puget Sound and a few glimpses of the Olympic Mountains on an otherwise grey day.
In Portland, we stayed at the Woodlark Hotel, a building that had been an old hotel, then had been slated to be demolished years ago, but someone with foresight (and money) rescued it, and opened it recently—nicely remodeled. The desk clerk happily informed us we’d been upgraded to a space with more light, so I swung the room door open with relish only to discover a king sized bed with a path around it (i.e. the same as our own bedroom at home), a “closet” that was brass pipes jutting out of the wall, and a desk and chair built for young Swedish children (unfortunate for Z since he had papers to grade while I was swanning around with my friends). It did have the promised window with a view onto the busy street below, and I decided to appreciate how bijoux it was and how much I preferred it to a modern, air-tight space with no sense of itself.
Also, the fine folk at the Woodlark were so proud of the wallpaper in our room that it was duplicated on the coasters, room key, and the home screen of the TV. For four days I felt like I was in a steampunk jungle.
Whenever I see this particular set of friends, I’m surprised by how it feels like we said goodbye a month ago and no time has passed. We quickly dive into conversations about writing and life and memories from a decade ago when I met them as a homesick first semester nonfiction writer. They were all considerably younger than I was and almost done with the program, but they invited me in and that made all the difference. They saved the experience for me—made it fun, instead of an ordeal, taught me the ropes of handling the sometimes grueling residencies, and bought me a birthday tiara to help me celebrate my 42nd birthday the year The Terrifications began in earnest.
I’d like to regale you here with amusing anecdotes from those three days, but the truth is, it wouldn’t be interesting or entertaining: inside jokes originally constructed after too much alcohol, conversations about writers we like/loathe, stories about bodily functions and housekeeping. We went to Powell’s Books and I liked it better as I wandered around with Quill and Chickpea, recommending books to each other—focusing primarily on display books because they were face out and required no bending over. We weaved around streets looking for a place where my unsophisticated palate could be sated with something that wouldn’t completely bore them. I tried to find my bearings on the streets that all seemed the same to me (I never could figure out which direction was north, where the center of town was, or come to a conclusion about why a city so much smaller than Seattle seemed to have twice the homeless population.) We went to the river, a serviceable working river, but no beauty. My favorite bit, the Portland sign in Old Town that’s the shape of Oregon with a deer leaping away, as if it too is frightened of Fred Armisen.
Chickpea and Quill made it a goal to get me, finally, blessedly, to Voodoo Donuts, where we waited in a long line while looking at pictures of the donut treasures awaiting us—donuts covered in breakfast cereals, bacon, bubble gum, and shaped like joints and rude body parts. Getting a treat there is an event, though Chickpea was chastised by her server for ordering a single donut, “just so you can say you’ve been here” which was kind of off-putting. Surely half the people in that line were there so they could say they’d been to this temple of donut worship.
My final review: Voodoo donuts are okay. I don’t really get the hype. I know it’s blasphemy for someone living in the Pacific Northwest to say this, but I’d rather have a Krispy Kreme.
Our first night visiting our friends, Z and I rode the light rail back to the Woodlark. A security guard at the train station when we arrived told me it’s the best light rail system in the U.S. and maybe it is. (I can’t really judge—Seattle’s isn’t very complex or expansive.) But I didn’t love it. I’m used to riding public transportation, I’m used to the odd squabble, the random strings of curses at no one in particular, dogs of all varieties sometimes growling at each other. But on our ride home—at a respectable hour—a preppy looking dude with a black eye got on and began fake-punching and mouthing off to other people on the train. He wasn’t a racist, he said, but he was Special Ops and could throw the two guys at the back—who were Black—off the train if he wanted. There was a lot of back and forth between the three of them, and one of the guys said, “Dude, you’ve already got a black eye.” Later, they got off the train, shuffling past the instigator, and one guy mumbled, “I’m out of here. I can’t go to jail tonight.”
This left Z and me and a few other people further away for him to perform for. Whatever he’d been smoking or sniffing made silence an impossibility for him. He sidled up to us, asked Z if he was a doctor, and without really waiting for an answer said he was a doctor. A Special Ops doctor who worked for the CIA. We kept our eyes trained on the floor, hoping he’d catch a clue. But he kept up with his rambling chatter. Too close. Too unstable. He flexed a muscle and told me to feel it. I finally looked at him and said sarcastically, “No thanks.” He said to Z, “She’s got big eyes.” (Z insists he said, “She’s got big, beautiful eyes” but I’m pretty sure it was just “big eyes” said in the same sneering tone that Billy McGathey once used on me in 7th grade Home Ec not to look at him with my “bug eyes.” (I’m not sure why me looking at him was a problem—mostly I was just unimpressed with his seamstress skills and certain that my big eyes weren’t actually buggy.)
I don’t know if Z knew things with this guy were likely to get worse, or if he could sense that his wife was a middle-aged woman with occasional hormone instability and two Long Islands in her gullet. I wasn’t afraid of this swaggering, black-eyed twerp, and what’s more, I kind of wanted him to threaten us because I felt suddenly fierce with rage that he’d fake-punched a miserable looking guy in front of us, forced the squabbling guys behind us to listen to his bullshit about not being a racist when the first people he swaggered up to were people of color, and making the few remaining people on the train stare at the floor trying to make themselves small targets for his inebriated malice. I haven’t been to a gym in 7 years nor have a lifted anything heavier than a laundry basket in recent years, but I felt so angry at how ugly he was being that I was yearning to pop him on the nose.
I also suddenly wanted to talk about myself in the third person after punching him: Big Eyes has spoken.
I’ve never hit anyone in my life and I’m wildly uncoordinated, so it wouldn’t have ended well. The swaggering, black-eyed twerp and I have Z to thank for ushering me to the door at the next stop where he and I stood on the corner for ten minutes waiting for the next, less crazy train.
Because Z had a lot of work to do and because of the distaste I now felt for both the light rail system and Evening Portland in general, the last night there, I took an Lyft out to meet my friends. I chatted all the way to the ‘burbs with the driver, a transplant from Atlanta who had come out two years ago to help her college-student daughter adjust to her new west coast life. She was friendly and chatty and I was hepped up on caffeine. She said Portland wasn’t really working for her. It had been an adventure and she was glad to come out to help her daughter, but her daughter was making her own way now and she herself wasn’t really making any friends. When she moved in, she had introduced herself to her neighbors because she thought it would be nice if someone would maybe notice if a burglar was crawling in her window or she was dead on the doorstep, and she’d like to reciprocate that favor. Instead, they politely blinked at her and then shut their doors. She shrugged. Maybe she’d try Portland, Maine, next, she said. So I told her that I’d gone to grad school there, that that’s where I’d met these friends I was visiting, that I thought she might like it, but it would be very different from Atlanta too.
Chickpea and I sat around the rental unit for a couple of hours while the conference goers were off getting themselves registered. We talked about Maine and dogs while she cut up crudités and I gave myself a sort of Tarot reading with Quill’s new faerie cards. (It was unsuccessful, though the faeries indicated I perhaps had an unhealthy relationship to the outdoors. Which is true. I’m kind of allergic to it.) The others arrived, we stuffed ourselves with snacks and then left for supper and stuffed ourselves with food at the paleo, dairy-free, gluten-free restaurant where it seemed to be a requirement of the other customers and the staff to wear big, knit caps. Two of us were leaving the next morning, the other three were staying for the conference.
I hate this, the goodbyes. I waved farewell as they crossed the street, climbed into my Lyft where the music was soft and the driver was silent. He wove through the traffic while I wiped away a few tears. The Portland sign glimmered in the distance as we crossed the river. How can you miss people who you’ve really only ever been with for maybe forty days of your life all told?
It makes no sense. It also makes no sense that an ancient building I’ve never seen in a country where I’ve never been can move me to tears, whether standing intact or aflame.
It’s all illogical. But it’s my heart.