“…the greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society; rather the offspring of a nation's effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius; the deposit left by a whole people; the heaps accumulated by centuries...
Notre-Dame de Paris is, in particular, a curious specimen of this variety. Each face, each stone of the venerable monument, is a page not only of the history of the country, but of the history of science and art as well." - Victor Hugo
Notre Dame is burning down this morning. Well, this evening in Paris. This morning in Oakland. Their night and my morning. Their night and my mourning. I saw the fire almost as quickly as the people in the streets of Paris. When the spire fell I watched and screamed with the crowds below it. I could see the light of the flames as they melted glass stretched and colored hundreds of years ago. I could hear it popping and hissing and licking. But I could not smell the smoke and I could not feel the heat. (In Paris people are breathing in bits of Notre Dame tonight. Centuries freckling their throats and lungs.)
Online, people are already teaching the lessons they’ve learned from the burning, even though the flames are still bending and breaking and blowing out and sucking in. People are saying Notre Dame has been broken before and rebuilt. That great spaces are never finished and so it will not be reborn it will simply go on - anything new is a continuation not a restoration. Or, See? Not even Notre Dame is eternal. And? Even institutions so old, so firm, so loved, can crumble if the heat is high enough. And don’t you know? The old ways are dead and the new ways can’t save what isn’t alive anymore. The heat is high enough, we’ve stoked it. The burn is long enough, we’ve maintained it. And I suppose they are all right. There is nothing built that will stand. And there is nothing old that will last. (Timeless things don’t grow old. But timeless things don’t give me a place to sit down and look up.) And I guess that the world is burning down. And I suppose we’ve turned up the heat and I suppose somehow this is our fault. All of ours. Because we’ve learned how to make fire but we haven’t learned how to contain it.
And I know there are lessons. And I don’t begrudge the people placing them over their faces as a way to breathe through the soot and the sadness. But today. This morning. This mourning. All I could think to do was text Riley, that I was so so sorry (dammit I am so sorry) that I never took him to see Notre Dame. And I am so so sorry (dammit I am so sorry) for every man and woman that closed their eyes believing they’d left something that would stand - a bit of colored glass, the curve of a pew, the corner of a stone cut into another - and instead today (and yesterday and tomorrow) it all came crashing down.
I could use a lesson right now. Something to breathe through. I keep searching. But the only lesson I’ve learned is that fire burns.