Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.
Thursday, April 18th 2019
On Tuesday, April 15th, Notre-Dame de Paris, one of France’s greatest buildings and symbols, burned.
As is always the case in the 21st century, it was a catastrophic event that virtually everyone, everywhere, could watch. A disaster witnessed by human eyes on a planetary scale.
Human responses to its destruction by flame varied, people fitting the images being transmitted by every means possible to them into the critical context that made sense in their reality, whether it was religious, spiritual, political, cultural, economic, aesthetic…
I found it very hard to watch as the flames tore at the building, devouring it; billowing out, fed by the combustibles within and the oxygen provided by the ambient air. I wasn’t able to watch those scenes for very long. Something truly awful was happening in Paris, again, and for an instant, my thoughts veered to the possibility that this was one more nightmarish terrorist action, but they didn’t last. The day may come when extraordinary gathering places like the Dome of the Rock, or Hagia Sophia, or Notre-Dame de Paris fall to the same impulses that are tearing humans apart in the early 21st century, but surely, we’re not there yet.
It appears that, at least in the case of Notre-Dame de Paris, we were not.
I guess that by now, you’re taken aback by this post. What can this event possibly have to do with the very small, personal story of living with cancer that I’ve been telling, bit by bit and week by week, for the past 9 months, at this blog?
The impulse to write to you this time comes from a memory that was evoked as I watched the beautiful old cathedral suffering so much damage.
I’m not a traveler. I haven’t seen very much of the world with my own eyes. But I have seen all of Canada’s provinces except for Newfoundland (I’d love to correct that) and the territories to the north; and I’ve seen large swaths of the United States. I’ve also been to England (in the summer of 2015), and France (in the summer of 2012), each time, to visit one of my sons.
While in France, Simon, my friend Louise and I were based in Montpellier, where Simon was doing post-doctoral research. We branched out to Carcassonne, and also made sure to set aside three or four days to see some of Paris. I think we may have been a bit unlucky because we hit a heat wave, with temperatures between 31-34 Celsius that made almost everything exhausting and unpleasant (we spent most of our visit to the Louvre in the basement, trying not to pass out).
Then came the day we set off, on foot, to l’Île de la Cité, in the centre of Paris, on which Notre-Dame de Paris was built. It was the tourist season. There were crowds everywhere. The lineup to visit the cathedral had been forming for hours, the long, serpentine gatherings of people stood right out in the baking sun, waiting, so we decided to begin our day by visiting the adjacent attraction, which was a guided exploration of the catacombs that run under the Cathedral grounds. We were so happy to find ourselves out of the sun and hidden away underground, where it was cool and quieter.
We emerged refreshed and ready to join the lineup for the cathedral itself. It seemed to move much faster than we had imagined and soon, we stepped out of the heat and into the fresher, darker atmosphere of Notre-Dame.
I had no expectations going in. None. It was packed. There were people everywhere, bunched together, moving around with no sense of place or of decorum. They were probably just happy to finally have something to do and see. It was all so strangely anti-climactic.
And then, moving further in, I looked up.
To the vaulted ceiling which my eyes followed up and up to the roof; to the rows and rows of breathtaking arches, so beautiful, so impossible…
And I started to cry. Not just a few wet sniffles. I was overtaken by emotion so intense and so full that all I could do was cry and cry and cry. The tears spilled out of me. As I continued through the building, pushed along by people, I felt utterly filter-less. Defenseless. What did I feel? What was this emotional spillover all about?
I remember looking at the vaults and thinking of the people who had built them, painstakingly, at tremendous personal cost. Hundreds and hundreds of lives over centuries. Generation upon generation, dedicated to a single purpose, day after day. The vaulted ceiling was so beautiful. There was such presence there.
While I no longer adhere to any specific religion, I am a spiritual person and I think that I was also responding to the presence of the numinous in that space.
I don’t know what the human soul is, or whether it exists, but I know that on that day at Notre-Dame de Paris, I was immersed in emotion that I can only call soulful.
What caught me most off guard on Tuesday, when the images of the fire began flooding the internet, was the remembrance of that outpouring of tears on that day in 2012, and the recognition that moments like this have been part of my life over and over since my cancer diagnosis.
You see, one of the side effects of my new life with cancer is the sudden and surprising outpouring of tears and the constriction of my face and chest that accompany them. This has been happening to me from almost the very beginning. But they’re rarely tears of sadness, though I have those too. No, these tears are just like my Notre-Dame tears. They’re released unpredictably and they’re difficult to stop. I’m almost always with someone, in a conversation that, for whatever reason, veers to something small, or perhaps more substantive, that is just honest; true; real; and which becomes connected—even if only in me— to the ephemerality of my situation, to the essential nature of human life, to the deepest roots of love. It happens while I’m speaking. I just seem to melt into tears.
Most of my entourage knows that I’m fine. I say that I’m not sad, but that I simply have no more filters. I tell them that I realise that there’s no point trying to bury my tears. I can’t. They just flow, and seem to do so only when conversation has reached a soulful place. Even if the exchange is about someone else, my filters can fail. The membrane that separates me from a river of emotions is foundering.
These moments are like my experience inside Notre-Dame de Paris. They’re moments when all of the fear, compassion, pain, worry, joy, wonder, gratitude and love are flowing one into the other, and I am overwhelmed.
Why hold them back? My life has come to this. To times when what I’m feeling is the essence of my existence. I think my tears appear when words are insufficient.
They feel GOOD.