What brought me to my window was the sirens. Way too many sirens. What I saw was the sky filling with billowing smoke like the end of days.
Notre Dame was burning. On fire was humanity striving toward transcendence. The conflagration consuming the highest aspirations of the human spirit, ingenuity, and art. This cathedral moves the souls of people of all faiths. And now it burns.
As the flames grew higher, something inside my ribcage sensed that the precious art inside the cathedral was being destroyed, and my entire body reacted; I crumpled to the floor, I wept.
The smoke was suddenly unnaturally multicolored, and it occurred to me that those plumes of smoke may have gotten their hues from the paintings or stained glass. I hoped not. I hoped not.
Before I knew what was happening, the tragedy overtook me again. I fell to the floor, sobbing like someone had died. My phone dinged with notifications; my Parisian friends, all expressing their condolences to me. It seemed so generous for them to think of me when it was their hearts being torn from their bodies.
In a matter of minutes, an entire nation, a soulful culture, was thrown into grief and tragedy, and yet, their instinct was to reach out to an expat, to comfort her. The depth of fellow-feeling, of poetry and communality, in the French soul will never cease to astonish me. It is this esprit that French artisans and craftspeople had transubstantiated from wood and stone and glass into a symbol that has endured for 850 years.
The river boats stopped floating by for the first time since I’ve lived here. Only police boats sped by; more sirens.
The smell, I am sad to say, was beautiful. Old wood, aged over centuries, redolent of ancient forests. It was a pure, clean smell. Our Mother perfumed the air of Paris as she burned. The spire fell and every living soul forgot how to breathe.
Red embers floated by my window. I wondered if they were bits of the paintings. I prayed they weren't. The clouds of smoke billowed absinthe green, horrible and beautiful to watch.
My neighbor came over, embraced me, invited me to come sleep in her place, if I should feel too scared or sad. How scared and sad she must be. We whispered and wondered if She would fall.
The streets were closed and the sirens became unceasing, layering upon each other. I watched a brave firefighter pick his way along the highest walkway on the front of the cathedral, a hundred feet in the air, looking for something. All while the inferno blazed a few feet away, and the roof was collapsing. I heard that the lead roof was melting, and that lead melts at 622 degrees fahrenheit. The firefighters must have been broiling in their suits.
The fire grew and grew and fed on itself. I imagined the courage of the firefighters, battling to quench the blaze that moment by moment seemed to be intent on devouring the symbol of hope for the soul of humanity. Did they weep inside their helmets?
The street below me emptied of cars and buses, and filled instead with throngs of people, gathering from every side street, in shock. Hundreds, then thousands of people silently stood and watched in helpless horror. There were tears, despair. Arms around each other. The death of a Mother. I watched them watch and was overcome. Watching them watch was worse than watching with my own eyes.
Nighttime fell, and still She burned. I couldn't sleep, afraid that if I did I would wake in the morning to see She had fallen. I would not be able to handle that, and so I did not let myself slip. But eventually I must have fallen into a deep and silent place.
When I open my eyes I rush to the window, so afraid of what may have happened in the night.
She still stands. I am overjoyed and weep again. There is hope, after all. I am so fragile I fear her fall would have ended me. I fall to my knees, even though I am not a religious person.
There are no tourists strolling down the Seine, just a few staggering stragglers. Everyone is in shock. The bouquinistes are still closed up, but it’s early yet. I see a subdued Paris, a Paris in mourning.
I say a silent thank you to all the forces of the universe that saved her, and make a pilgrimage to the monument this morning to pay my respects. For 850 years Notre Dame has supported the human spirit, and now she needs our support. Already I hear people talking about donations pouring in from all over the world. She will be rebuilt. Once again, she inspires humanity to their best.