What have we learned; what have we forgotten?

Like you, in my home, we’ve watched a lot of movies over the past three months of pandemic. In selecting what to watch after the dismal news of the day, my suggestions most often are met with the observation that “we’ve already seen it.” Impossible. I have no recollection. And yet halfway into the film, so it is—a family rerun. Why did I not remember?

I have the same issue with books I’ve read: I have imbibed them, even with relish, but I haven’t digested them. The past few days I’ve been re-reading the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. I had recalled the first reading as a tedious and tawdry account of Elena’s affair with Nino Sarratore. In this second reading, I’m halfway through what now appears a paean to her friendship with Lila; Nino is nowhere to be seen. How can my experiences be so divergent?

Plato in The School of Athens—Raphael

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates warns that the act of writing undermines memory. With a written record, we have no need to remember. Our memory is vested in an externalized account. That said, the internet age must not undermine but demolish human memory. I did have an internalized memory of Elena’s story. It just happened to be at odds with the actual book.

Faulty memory leads to mistakes, from incorrect “external” information to stereotyping to inappropriate behaviors. This weekend of protests against racism across the United States, I walked on the beach, where someone had sculpted a dozen faux graves, a memorial to recent deaths by racism. Is racism a problem of faulty memory—as from habitual faulty associations or from failing to learn what prior experience has revealed?

We surely remember that slavery did not work out well for the United States. It set the country against itself by contradicting its ideals: All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights—except for black people who are only 3/5 equal.

Slavery: the saddest story in United States history. Launched in the 17th century, and outlawed in the 19th. Yet, as the 19th flowed into the 20th century, the subjugation of black people mutated into the Jim Crow era of different rules for black and white people. It seeped into the 21st century with unequal enforcement of law and inequitable exercise of justice. Ongoing racial degradation has brought us in 2020 the knee-jerk killing of Ahmed Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, the mistaken identity and slaughter of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, his windpipe crushed under a policeman’s knee. Persistent erroneous associations pigeonhole black as different, unequal, and dangerous. What have we learned, and what have we forgotten?

At one of our kids’ college graduations in Chicago, the university president opened the ceremonies by memorializing a black woman graduate, killed the day before she was able to don her cap and gown. She was driving from downtown back to campus and was pulled over by police. She stopped and raised both hands in the air. Her cell phone was in her right hand. The officer thought it was a weapon and shot her.

Condoleeza Rice, 66th U.S. Secretary of State

We might say that to racially profile is to willfully forget. By 2020, white people across the United States cannot have escaped close encounters and intimate connections with black people. Consider your fellow students, your colleagues, your teammates, your parents’ caregivers. Before and during this century, US society has come to elevate black people to positions of prominence and power—from jazz singers to opera singers, from sports icons to Supreme Court justices, from mayors to Secretaries of State, from four-star generals to Attorney General, from Governor to President of the United States. Haven’t we transcended issues with black equality, humanity, worthiness, acceptance, intelligence, goodness, and competence?

I was lucky, I think, to have experienced a glimpse at racism at the age of four. Candy, my contemporary neighbor, told me one morning when we were playing on the sidewalk in front of our houses that her family had a colored lady working at their house. I was captivated by the mental image: a lady of many colors! I said I wanted to see her. We tip-toed down her basement stairs and peeked into her laundry room, where a gentle-faced woman was folding laundry. I asked where the colored lady was, but Candy pointed only to the lady doing laundry. I saw no colored lady and continued to look back and forth, perplexed by Candy’s mischievous expression. I gave up trying to figure it out, and we went back upstairs. The interchange left me uneasy. Was Candy telling me a joke I didn’t get? There might be something odd about her family, I felt inwardly. We remained sidewalk friends but not for long because my family moved to a different house, and Candy’s family moved to Minneapolis.

Last month a beautiful friend of mine passed away. She was a woman of warmth and smiles, and she was colorful: well traveled, a quilt maker, tastefully dressed, a mother of five, irrepressibly energetic. She was several years older than I, but we found commonality in hailing from different parts of Chicago and transplanting to the Pacific Northwest. We discovered that we had each at one time worked in the same school district, she as a principal, I as a student teacher. In our eventual west coast locale, we taught at the same college before she retired. The last times we saw each other were at a UPS outpost and at a piano recital this past March, just before the coronavirus lockdown. She and her husband were there for their grandson’s recital. I was there for my husband’s, as he had taken up piano over the past few years.

They say my friend died on Saturday of a cerebral hemorrhage the day before. She went, as they say, very quickly, before we knew she had been hospitalized. Some people wondered: was it COVID19 related? They didn’t treat it as such at the time, but having learned since then the relationship between coronavirus and blood clotting, could it be? We know that black people for whatever reasons—personal history? genetic predisposition? environmental chance?—are disproportionately stricken. In any case, my friend died. She happened to be a black woman, though I saw no black in her.

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, now encased in an acrylic sheath. 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 might envision. 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 un cornet, a cone, of Berthillon sorbet, meandered “home” to our quartier 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 owned memory.