Our Burning

OUr Lady WWII

People gathering near the cathedral in August 1944 after Allied forces recaptured Paris.

Why does the burning of Our Lady affect me so?

I’m not a practicing Catholic or even a Christian really.  So why should this conflagration matter?

Although I am not of Christian faith, Christian tropes do apply here.

The Notre Dame Cathedral was designed in the form of a cross, and the bell towers stand at the position of Christ’s feet when he was brutally nailed to that Tree of Life.

The spire once rose directly above the center of the architectural crucifix – that ashen vehicle of sacrifice – and when the spire burned and fell, it pierced the nave like a spear piercing the heart, not of Christ, but of the Christ.

And like the original crucifixion was so intended, this sacrifice may perhaps have shaken us again from a slumber.

When the great teacher and expositor of belief Joseph Campbell was once asked where he prayed, he answered simply, “Notre Dame,”  Our Lady.   Even if he had not been there in years, he explained, her profound space was still his spiritual home.

But the sorrow over her burning is not about denomination. Nor is it necessarily about Christianity or Islam or any other belief system.  The burning matters not so much because it is even a religious thing.

It matters because it is a human thing.

It matters because for many it was a place of secular pilgrimage.  How many of us have taken pictures of ourselves with family or a fiancé there among the gargoyles and demons, as if to say, we one day will die, but here, if just for a moment, we once lived and we once loved.

It matters because Notre Dame is the symbolic center of France (and you could even argue modern Europe and in general the West) – Ground Zero if you will – from which all distances are measured.

And the center – in a time in which the center struggles to hold – matters.

In his recent book, The Road to Unfreedom, Yale historian Timothy Snyder documents how in a highly calculated way foreign actors have worked to undermine political and social cohesion in the United States and in Europe.  A third of Brexit twitter posts were generated by bots as part of a covert Russian media and troll campaign.  The same forces have launched sophisticated social media campaigns in the Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, France, and the US intended to invalidate liberal democracies. Deliberate untruths foment social divisions, including the Yellow Vest movement that has torn apart Paris.

But this is not just about one nation’s imperatives pitted against another.  It concerns an assault on truth itself.  We are being incited to let ourselves be governed by emotion and impulse, by vague belief in what we wish to be true and not in facts themselves.

As our fears are stoked, the spectres of authoritarian governments have risen across Europe and within the United States. Authoritarian leaders do not necessarily seize power.  Afraid, we willingly give it up.

In this strange world, fact and truth are denigrated. Chaos becomes the brand, disintegration the goal.  By turning us against each other, more can be accomplished than through a multitude of guns.   

As our passions become inflamed, the centre cannot hold.

And without a moral or spiritual or truth-bound center, unhealthy impulses grow to fill the void. We frame anyone beyond our immediate tribe as outsiders to be either vilified or feared or destroyed. We turn our selves away from one other.

It took 183 years to build Notre Dame, slightly less time than the United States itself has even existed.  Our Lady represents the greatest of human endeavors – that painstaking and collaborative work that contributes in some small way to a great edifice beyond our own cognition.  Something so vast in conception that in Our Lady’s first construction, neither the first stone masons nor their children nor their grandchildren would ever live to see her completion.

She is about honoring something greater than one’s self.

Call it the perfection of democracy.  Or human emancipation, or equality, or the extension of universal rights to all forms of life, or the prevailing of truth over momentary whim or lies or fancy.

So, strangely then, her burning may now promote a different kind of faith.  Not necessarily in God, but perhaps in us.  Not the us vs. them, but the very center that is simply the collective and embracing us.

For decades the foundation dedicated to preserving Notre Dame struggled to raise funds.  But in the hours after the fires were extinguished, more than 600 million euros poured in from donations both quite large and incomparably small.  We donate because, perhaps, we’ve been awakened to the thought that the center must indeed hold.

Her burning matters because it reminds us of the profound need to come together in a time when individuals and forces are doing all that they can to drive us apart.

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And This is Why

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Today I sit in a coffee bar in San Francisco. It’s evening in the Lower Haight.

Today I turn 52.

History’s anodyne gaze renders all things banal. To the future: this is what the face of imminent horror may look like.

Today, on this day, leak sources reveal that the administration was in communication with Russian intelligence for months before the election.

This week, a spokesman for the President stated that the powers of the President are substantial and are not to be questioned.

The President himself accuses those who leak information of being guilty of treason.

In a news conference he refuses to take questions from established media sources. He categorizes Palestinians as hateful violent people. He threatens darkly that we will crack down on criminal elements and make America great again.

He accuses anybody who speaks against him as being a purveyor of fake news.

On this day I turn 52.

—-

I was 17 when my mom turned 52. Alone and long widowed, in that moment she thought that her life was over.

A few years earlier she had told me that she would kill herself on my 18th birthday, because then her filial and parental duties would be over.

As events would have it, she wasn’t too far off her mark.

But she’d crumbled long before that. The mother I’d known since I was six or seven would sleep most of the day. She would not cook or clean house. For many days or weeks growing up, she would simply be gone. My brother and I would fend for ourselves as best we could.

It was the only life I knew. And I never thought to ask why it was or if perhaps it could have been any different.

It took years of maturation before I would have the wherewithal to even seek an explanation. What could have possibly left a once brilliant and vivacious woman, so disabled and so damaged that at such a young age she could imagine no future for herself?

It’s taken a lot of excavation over a lot of years to find the answers.

In 1989 I sat in a nursing home with the shell of that poor woman. Her skull was indented from a frontal lobotomy. She didn’t have many words then. She sat in a breezeway in a nursing home, a Time magazine in her lap, the cover showing bodies in Tainanmen Square. I found her crying and I asked what was the matter. Because this happened in my country, she said.

It took a quarter of a century for me to learn something of what she meant. She was a war child. She was born in 1930 and the only conscious life she knew until she was 20 was under the dark shadow of authoritarianism.

The man in the White House talks about carnage in America. But he does not know carnage. And I fear that the true carnage may be the one which he and his cohort threaten in word and deed to bring upon us.

Carnage is the tactical unleashing of the fear of the other, of declarations that we must be afraid and that we are under threat of terror.

Carnage is the disintegration and dismemberment of civic institutions.

Carnage is the consenting transfer of power from the body politic to a small cadre of individuals.

Carnage is to have your neighbors, and inexorably you yourself, declared an enemy.

Carnage is to declare war in order to consolidate power over a people.

Carnage is having your childhood playmates and their families loaded in trucks and then onto trains and then carried away to points eastward.

Carnage is having 143 men, women, and children – residents of your village – receive dispensation with a bullet to the head.

Carnage is eating bread baked of sawdust and straw.

Carnage is to know insufferable cold and hunger.

Carnage is to smell for months on end the toxic stench of rotting flesh and burning rubber and powder and fire.

Carnage is seeing the bloated bodies of deserters hanging in trees because they were traitors.

Carnage is to have no home to which you may return; having no country for to call your own.

Carnage then, is to experience such loss, that you for the remainder of your life can see no future and you become paralyzed by the very processes of living.

—-

The lived experience of that carnage, if not the memory itself, is passed on to the descendent. You find yourself risk averse. Or perhaps strangely paralyzed when it comes to the most basic decisions – even the most petty can result in life or death. You question the reliability and certitude of all things – relationships or even the persistence of our own democracy.

You grow up hungry, and you learn to double or triple down when food is presented. You look for brake lights, not just in the car in front, but three cars ahead. You bolt at explosions and loud noises. You awaken in the middle of the night with an undefinable dread.

And even when the administration appears to be in chaos and in threat of toppling, you know better.  You know that the deranged beast, when wounded, is in fact the most dangerous.  And that it will unleash a fury with which there is no reckoning, that we will be at war within months.

I asked folks on Facebook this morning to read and perhaps share the following interview of historian Timothy Snyder. It suggests only obliquely the surreal horrors that my mother and her generation knew. And here, now, 75 years distant from those shadows, I feel we are not safe, that the demons will yet be visited upon us.

Perhaps more than anything else, the circumstances and events described by Timothy Snyder give shape to who I am today.

And this is why, for your pleasure or perhaps only my own, I want people to read what he has to say, today, on the day that I turn 52.

Today, on this day, I don’t want the horror and grave sadness lived by the woman who brought me into this world to have been for naught and vain.

Today I can brook no quarter with this administration and the currents which they are stirring.

Not on my watch.

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