On losing a place

Monday evening in Paris is mid-morning in my West Coast home. It was a chilly first day of Holy Week, the week before Easter, and as I wrote and drank coffee beside the fireplace, a message from my daughter in Paris popped up on my screen: this photo.

It was the gut punch felt round the world. The roof of Notre Dame in Paris was disappearing in flames. A second message, from a friend in Bretagne, provided a French TV link, so we watched. And watched.

We grimly viewed feeble water spouts shot from the street; they seemed only to fuel the nightmare. We saw smoke pour through a stained glass window. We witnessed the 19th-century spire’s collapse and an aerial view of Our Lady’s interior engulfed in flames.

I knew the Crown of Thorns was cherished as most valued relic of the treasures inside. I remembered waiting in line one Good Friday to venerate this relic. I knew it would be on display this Friday for veneration by the faithful and inspection by the curious. The Easter Vigil would be slotted for six days hence, Saturday at 8:00 p.m.—à vingt heures—with the caveat: Would Notre Dame survive? 

More than a decade earlier, two of my high school kids and I had spent Holy Week in France, wandering from Paris to Poitiers to Tours and back to Paris—and Notre Dame. I now relived every detail of that week, beginning with Palm Sunday, when church bells across the city rang incessantly from ten in the morning til after noon. We were staying on the rue des Écoles on the Left Bank at the time, a five minute walk to the Seine and Point Zéro, the marker in front of Notre Dame from which all distances in France are measured.

That Palm Sunday we saw families strolling home from mass with their armloads of branches. At home in the U.S., we pinch a couple of scrawny palm leaves between thumb and forefinger as we enter the church on Palm Sunday. At home there are no palm branches. In France the faithful embrace arms full of boxwood boughs to round out lavish white rose and lily bouquets for Easter Sunday’s afternoon feast.

The following weekend we joined the Saturday vigil. Imagining the cathedral would be packed, we arrived an hour early and selected seats halfway back from the altar. The great space was lit only by fading daylight. Each woven chair held a small white candle. A cupped paper fleur-de-lis encircling the candle would capture wax drippings as mass proceeded. (Some would catch on fire, their owners blowing frantically mid-mass to put them out.)

Daylight continued to dim. I stared into the vault, studying ribbed arches, the exquisite, now darkened, candelabra strung along the ambulatory. I imagined the hunchback gazing down from the choir far overhead.

The crowd silenced in the blackened space as Cardinal Lustiger, himself a converted Jew, lit the paschal fire, soon blazing alongside the altar, flames leaping, casting wavering shadows and a vista of Notre Dame’s architectural bones. Gradually, lit from the paschal fire, an unwieldy five-foot Easter baptismal candle flame would spread to each of our tapers until the flickering sanctuary reflected each face radiant with surprised, expectant joy.

The rest is as you would expect. This Feast of Feasts ended with the pipe organ pulling out all stops, dissonant chords echoing off the ancient stones. As we departed, close to midnight that vigil of Easter, the bells of Notre Dame burst forth again, and a group of Nigerians re-lit their candles and sang and danced on the parvis under the bell towers. We stopped along Île St. Louis for a cone of sorbet, meandered “home” across the Seine, and tucked in feeling filled up, complete. We slept with our windows open to the street sounds and smells of Paris at Easter.

Now we have the same iconic photo images of “our” Notre Dame as in anyone’s personal scrapbook: the cathedral from across the quai from St. Julien-le-Pauvre, or from beyond the flying buttresses to the garden of Pope St. John XXIII, where we would gnaw ham and gruyère baguette sandwiches and drink Orangina. Yes, we took her for granted. We have lived in her and around her; we have loved her. Now she is lost to the future, even as we tenderly hold her, a piece of our life, our own place, our own memory.


Body and spirit


Strolling Nye Beach, January 2014

For years I have accepted without question, that humans are a balance of spirit and body, though I think I have devoted more care to the body.  As a child, I took both body and spirit for granted, I suppose favoring bodily health over any concern for my daily dose of happiness.  But this was because I had been given happiness by a wagon train of perpetual loving care around my circle of life.

In January of my sixth grade year, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as 35th president.  The following Friday night, my parents had a dramatic argument, admittedly not so dramatic by today’s entertainment standards.  We ate dinner late on TV trays and watched the spookiest episode of Twilight Zone I have ever seen: The Hitchhiker (for those who’d like to follow up).  The next morning, although my sisters and I were still a little shell-shocked, Mom and Dad were all smiles.  They had made up, and life went on.

It was a bitingly frigid Saturday: January in Chicago-land.  The cold meant the ponds were frozen and our buoyant parents were taking us ice skating at Phillips Park.  (Coming of age in this era meant a pair of figure skates if you were a girl—hockey skates for boys— from Santa one Christmas.)  The perfect skating weather foretold a crowded rink, although this one was enormous, probably a good acre.  Yet figure skaters and hockey skaters fought for turf, their styles hopelessly at odds: hockey skaters ramping up speed while figure skaters would glide.  This day, like a running back in football, there came a moment when in mid-twirl I tried to jig around a charging boy claiming right of way.  My lower left leg folded underneath the rest of me—and I couldn’t get up.

Mom and Dad skidded across twenty yards of ice to the rescue, each grabbing an arm. Mom said, “Stand up.”  I could not.  “It’ll feel better if you walk on it.”  But still my leg gave way with the slightest weight.  They gave each other a look.  Within five minutes my three sisters had circled back to our home bench.  Grudgingly they changed into their boots and slung skates over shoulders.  We were headed to Dreyer Clinic.

Two days later, I was on crutches, my mom still urging me to “walk on it,” and the clinic called to pronounce that I’d suffered a fractured fibula.  I would get a walking cast for six weeks, of which my 7th-grade sister was jealous; my classmates could sign the cast with doodles and cheery greetings.  My favorite uncle, Uncle Bill, came to visit me, and with a flourish bent over my leg and kissed it, promising all would be well, warming my heart.

The next six weeks I could wear only skirts and shorts, in a Midwestern February and March, mind you.  But I remember these winter days fondly, as a pleasant departure from the dreary slog of a long winter.  Too soon the cast came off.  I was free.  Two weeks later, Uncle Bill, 39 years old, died of an aneurysm.  Now I was walking normally, but I would never see him again.  Less than three years later, now a sophomore in high school, JFK was assassinated.  These events strung together in my memory of the early 1960s, like a chain of clouds in an otherwise flawless sky.

Decades later, strolling along a Northwest beach in January, a woman walked with a friend, not far from my path.  She swung along on crutches, landing on her solitary leg.  The beach stretched for miles, but on she swung, never pausing or flinching, in rapt conversation.  Eventually she would have to turn and walk back to her starting point.  Apparently this did not deter her, as she kept pace, effortlessly it seemed.  This woman possessed the balance I lacked.  I walked on two legs in tennis shoes and thought how brief and inconsequential my childhood incapacitation had been.  The struggles that mattered came from emotional upheavals, not from momentarily disruptive events.  My body had a habit of healing, while the spirit held fast to its pain.

Gardening Vagaries


We have nice neighbors in all directions, but the ones we interact with most are those whose driveway runs parallel to ours no more than 20 feet away.  US driveways being the café, the front porch, of the 21st-century, we step into or out of the car expecting a social encounter.  If we were to grow lonely, we could consider washing the car or pruning the roses alongside our neighbors’ turf.

Ten years ago things weren’t so copacetic.  The young couple next door lodged his father, an unemployed, bombastic, heavy-metal, beer-swilling outlaw who left evidence that he had burglarized our house.  At Christmastime.  Opening all of the wrapped gifts stacked in the study.  We never recovered the stolen goods, but we investigated the cost of an iron grill on which we could train fast-climbing vines for a quick wall between driveways.  That improvement evaporated when the iron-worker demanded artisanal prices, but the dream of a natural wall persisted.  We planted Italian cypress, both forest green and golden, to divide the two homes, at least presenting a visual impediment to our neighboring persona non grata.  As time rolled on, I watched the sweet gum tree my mother had given me one birthday, planted in the back corner of our lot.  It had grown to thirty feet and to occupy most favored status in my heart.  I added a sweet gum tree to the end of our driveway.

The sweet-gum tree, most glorious of the fall display.  Which leaf color do you prefer? Burgundy? Gold? Tangerine? Crimson? Canary?  The sweet gum displays them all intermingled over three to four weeks, extending autumn’s glory and defying the encroaching winter landscape.  This joyful display up close to the street would cheer drivers-by and extinguish any suspicion that we were anti-social grumps intent on isolation.

Although the outlaw neighbor moved on, my anti-Frostian love of the wall never abated.  Yesterday, I was set to act on my creeping determination that we needed one more tree along the driveway border; this selection should partner with the existing sweet gum, now at its radiant best, and break up the monotonous wall of cypress.

I began my quest at Bloomer’s Nursery, where they had artfully displayed five sweet gums, up close to the office, as backdrop for yellow and tawny chrysanthemums.  About five feet tall and $70 each.  Pricey.  How far did my commitment extend?  I would look for another source.  Second stop, the reputable Gray’s Nursery in town along 6th Street.  I approached the end of the tree lot where the street trees and garden trees were mostly de-leafed, looked for a stray sweet-gum leaf hanging on, but I found none.  Two ruddy young men were standing about in a professional confab, and they asked if they could help.

“Do you have any sweet gum trees left?”

“No, we don’t carry sweet gums.”

“You . . . don’t . . . carry . . . them?”

“No, we find that they cause too many problems.”


“Yeah, people don’t like them.  They have a shallow root system that lifts up sidewalks.  They are just not that popular.”

“REALly?  I’ve had one for more than thirty years and never had a problem.  I love it.”  And I’m thinking, they’re not that popular?  They are all around town, one of the most commonly seen street trees and garden trees in town, growing in columnar fashion, so modest in breadth, vivacious in display.

“They are beautiful,” one young man added, gesturing to the tree just beyond the nursery fence, in full glory along 5th Street.

“Has the sidewalk been uplifted there,” I asked. “No.”

The companion added, “They just hang onto their leaves too long!”

Now there was a novel critique of an autumn tree.  That it was “not popular,” a reasonable economic criterion for not selling, this was an implausible excuse.  But why would one fault an autumn tree for displaying its colorful leaves for too long?”

“You cannot be serious; you guys are missing an opportunity.”  I turned on my heel and said they should have no fear, I would not check back.  I reflected on my avid life as a gardener for more than thirty years.  How I kept a garden journal and contemplated through the dark winter months how to perk up the landscape, shape our half-acre into a coherent park-like space, with color for all seasons, shapes, heights, and flashes of color, no matter where or when you surveyed the space.

I have tried to shape my garden like I’ve tried to shape my life, to impose beauty and order, creative but not permanent combinations, to remind me I am never finished.  There is much I have accomplished but much I still can do.  I can find a source for a tree, no matter how one nurseryman of limited imagination attempts to limit my choices or to impose what he thinks best.  One’s vision, one’s spirit, after all, cannot be bound by “Big Brother” or squelched by popular dismissal.  No, these brush-piles ignite the energy required to leap them.