Lucy Ferriss


I've called this blog "Travelin' Thoughts" in the past, because I kept it mostly as a journal to record impressions of new places and cultures. But in a way, it's still a place for traveling thoughts--ideas that move through and past me, and out into the world. Some of these are literary, some just about life. It's a good place to open up the conversation, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Our Lady

April 28, 2019
The north bell, ringing.

Last week I found myself in a debate with my son and one of his friends over the billionaires’ contributions to the rebuilding of Notre-Dame de Paris, which barely escaped being consumed by fire on April 15. What were those greedy capitalists doing, they wanted to know, spending lavish sums of money on a hunk of stone when the planet was threatened by catastrophic climate change? When children were starving in Yemen and the Sudan?

            There are plenty of answers to these questions. The one I gave, to keep things simple, was that it wasn’t a zero-sum game. That if pockets were deep enough to fund the rebuilding of Notre Dame, they were likewise deep enough for those other causes. The day after the Notre Dame fire, in fact, contributions to the rebuilding of black churches in the southern United States that had also been lost to fire rose dramatically. We need bread, I pointed out, and we also need symbols.

            I lived, last fall, within view of Notre Dame. When visitors came, I told them to exit the RER at the Notre Dame stop and I would meet them at a bench on the Petit Pont. Twice I climbed the towers with visitors and took in the way Paris fans out from its zero-kilometer marker.

From the bell tower, the Eiffel Tower diminished in the distance.

But mostly my relationship with the cathedral came at night, when after a long day of complicated tasks, I settled my brain by walking onto the Pont de la Tournelle and gazing at the lighted back of the church over the dark water of the Seine.

            We endure, Notre Dame seemed to say to me. Heavy and light, baroque and overcrowded, damaged, stubborn, wrong in most ways, we groan at our knees as we lift ourselves up. Over centuries, we do this.

            It put things, shall we say, into perspective.

            One day, a year or so ago, I took my students into Notre Dame. I told them to find somewhere to sit, perhaps to move from place to place, but mostly to sit and observe. To feel what was happening between the people who came into this space, and the space itself. To write the stories they found. After, when we met at one of the cafés by the square, one student said, “This was the first time in Paris when I didn’t feel like a tourist.” Funny, I thought, since we were in one of the most touristed spots in the world, but that was what happened when you stopped straining to see the wonders of the cathedral and let it, instead, come to you.

            Glued to the live feed from Paris on April 15, barely able to breathe, I kept seeing flickers of orange in the north bell tower. The firefighters were reporting that they had perhaps an hour to save the cathedral. If the fire took the towers, game over. What would rise in the place of Notre Dame, what would speak to our time when 800 years of history had vanished in a day, no one could say.

There came that flicker of orange again, like a devil in the tower, teasing us, cackling at us. The pumps pulled from the Seine; the hoses rose. On the Pont de la Tournelle, citizens with whom I had stood on those warm autumn evenings raised their voices in Ave Maria. The devil poked his head out again, HaHaHa. The hoses strained, missed their mark.

La Dame du Coeur light show, October 2019

The black smoke of the “forest,” the 13th-century wood that held up the roof, roiled over the city as the timbers crashed. Please, I murmured. Please. Out came the orange devil-head again from the north tower arch, confident now, mocking us who believed in the creations of humankind. Then a hose lifted, high, higher. It socked the orange monster in the teeth. Socked it again. Out came the fire, whoosh came the water. Yes! I cried, jumping up from my chair in front of a computer thousands of miles from Our Lady of Paris. Yes.

            Civilization hasn’t been saved. I know that. The oceans will rise, the species will die. But for a moment, the element of life defeated the element of death. It wasn’t the first time for Notre Dame, and it won’t be the last. French author Julien Green wrote of the cathedral in 1940, when Parisians feared German attacks, “The panes in the great rose window on the north side had been removed, and in their place was a large piece of sheeting into which the wind plunged with a kind of muffled blast resembling cannon fire.” This time, miraculously, the rose window endured. Like our hearts, wounded, still beating, and – in the very, very long run of time – mortal.

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