A Stone At Notre-Dame

The day we went to Notre-Dame it was raining. We were in Paris for a week and I arrived as I usually arrive to a new place, without expectation but glad to be there. On the train from Frankfurt, I drank the green we passed: fields, trees. And in Paris, our children ran through the thick grass lawns of important buildings and parks. The day we went to Notre-Dame I followed Justin from our ground level apartment along narrow streets and wider streets, over a bridge. We walked quickly because the sky was heavy, gray clouds first silvered by the sun and then only a dark, mottled sky. We stood in front of Notre-Dame, Grant in his pack on Justin’s back, Claire at my side, looking up at the wild, swooping, spikey features of the cathedral.

I go many places because my husband has the idea to go, and I follow. He plans, books tickets, runs Airbnb choices by me, reads about the city, country, region to list what we should visit, talks with other travelers about their experiences. I pack the bags and airplane snacks, my thoughts of Paris abstract until I am walking the low architecture of the city to stand now before Notre-Dame. We go inside.

My mother told me she stepped inside Notre-Dame and wept, as she had years before when she stood under the dome at Saint Peter’s Basilica. I imagined being so moved. I wanted that, really, to sense the spiritual heft or lift (I would take either) to be in a space occupied by generations of worshippers and seekers before. How many prayers sent to the arched ceiling, tracing up the spire. Of petition, thanksgiving and reverence, perhaps most of petition. I stood for a moment but no shimmer of heaven.

We moved to one side, to begin walking the perimeter of pews, pausing at alcoves of candles, statuary. The saints, saints martyred. Windows so high up. Intricate edges and stonework. Justin and the children went ahead. I stared up at faces made of marble, the cold folds of linen. The small cuts of colored glass. The shadows deeper for a sky that cracked lightning and thunder. I took pictures and most have a grainy quality – no flash photography. I glanced through a brochure about the Friends Of Notre Dame, forever rescuing the crumbling structure, washing away the soot, bolstering its bones, sautering the gaps. Look what we make with our own hands. Look what we make! The architects, artists, engineers who designed pieces of Notre-Dame, and the craftsmen and workers who built pieces of Notre-Dame, creating and building for decades, hundreds not seeing the finished work of their hands, what would stand for centuries as refuge, symbol, heart in a city, cathedral in turn revered, celebrated, neglected, found again.

No shimmer of heaven, no span of the Spirit (or perhaps, yes), but an understanding: how finite we are and how we build to stay a little longer than our breath. Look what we make with our own hands! The innate desire to create. A few years after this week in Paris a student asked me what I wanted to leave behind, after I am dead and I answered, A body of work. Writing like art. I paused before answering, but didn’t need the moment to think. I paused to decide which answer to give. I pour into my children. I am near my friends and family. I love my husband. I want a tracing of my lived love on the lives of my children and their children, yes. But I write and will leave that too, and I want what I leave to be art. Look what I make. Remember the men and women who made a cathedral to God, for us to see God anew.  

I woke one morning that week in Paris, sunk deep in a soft mattress, and cried, wanting anything but what I had in that moment but rising to join my family at breakfast. I do not like this part of my story – early ambivalence toward motherhood, still occasional hatred of marriage, selfishness crowding simple joy. We had a beautiful week in Paris but I was still there too. What I forget to remember is that over my own war, I got out of bed, dressed, held my daughter’s hand, kissed my son’s cheek, took my husband’s arm and walked through the day, summer streets, one park and pastry to the next. There are landmarks of my early motherhood where I might have set a stone to remember here I yielded more, here I surrendered to present, here I loved again as best I could, here, knowing more is asked tomorrow.

Outside Notre-Dame again we crossed a street for lunch at a small counter. We shared croque monsieur, standing under a narrow awning and looking at the stained stone, the pointy details, the gargoyles and spire, the rain funneling off the roof. I did not think we would go back, not for some time at least. I had a stomach urge to touch the cathedral once more – wet, rough rock – but I stayed on the stoop feeding bites of bread and cheese to my children. The rain did not let up. We walked away  to find our next warm, dry place, two to an umbrella, Justin carrying Grant, Claire and me matching small steps.

Sixteen of thirty-nine. 905 words.

What To Show After

The reason for my sorrow is pathetic in the details. For a week I’ve been wondering where all the watercolor paintings Claire and I made have been disappearing to. Claire taped an arrangement on the wall above her dresser. I taped a line of paintings near my desk. After work I’d see that another square of paper fell down (no Pinterist-worthy showcasing in my house, just tape unsticking from walls) and get on with the night. I meant to ask our maid if she’d put them in drawer or cupboard after I’d looked but hadn’t found the missing work.

I asked today.

She’s been throwing them away.

She apologized. I said it was okay, please don’t throw away our art ever again, waited for her to leave and went to my room to cry.

The fourth quarter of any school year is a terrible time for me to conduct a self-inventory but I did that, kneeling at the foot of my bed, crying about all my stupid paintings that were lost to all the other trash down our street. I bought the watercolors and inks because I was so tired (so so so tired) of making art that just sits in a file or gets put on a shelf once the notebook is full, art that rarely finds vocal expression or appreciation. I wanted to SEE what I’d made and enjoy looking at it after the pleasure of creating.

I look out my window and everything is the color of dirt except for clothes draped over balconies to dry. The last five years has been unrelenting examination. I question where I am, where I go. My watercolors were mostly stained glass, laundry on balconies, and maps.

I’m sad those first pieces of my return to an old favorite medium are gone. Like, really sad. Like, still crying about it sad. Because I can’t help but see a metaphor for every single thing I’m trying to do, in those pitched paintings. I can choose colors and let the first wash dry, add salt starbursts, play with texture, define with pen. I can paint with pleasure, an hour gone and the memory of street we walked down on paper. And then it all goes away. Nothing to show.

How much of our work, our art, is invisible after?

The lost watercolors viscerally remind me what I fear for the countless hours and pages I write. So I cry for what I suspect too, that one day all of this goes away. That I’ll find out I should have made play-doh on the stove or cooked better meals. That I should have pursued school leadership or hosted a Bible study. That I should have gone outside more. Something. I trade for my writing. But maybe I find out it’s a lousy trade. I thought about all that, kneeling at the foot of my bed, hoping the kids wouldn’t hear me cry about paintings that took twenty minutes when I’ve got work and relationships that are years, decades in the making, all of it as easily lost, and what to show after?