Notre Dame, and a thread in my poetic life
There are tears in my eyes this morning. I cannot bear to see another image of the falling spire or the burning roof.
And yes, they will build it again. But not in my lifetime. I will never be able to look across the river and see the arches, and know the gargoyles are up there above the saints and martyrs. And the rose window - what has happened to that?
Paris and Notre Dame are braided into my poetic life. My exchange visit to France, first time out of Britain, aged 14, was a shock, a wonderful and difficult shock, to the very British, very middle class, rather serious, schoolgirl I was back then. I had never eaten food with oil or garlic. I had never eaten lentils or home-cured ham or real custard made with eggs. I had never closed wooden shutters on a bedroom window, and so slept late into the morning without light to wake me. I had never smelt drains throughout the house, or had a maid, or visited a chateau for lunch. How scared I was, and how I loved it!
And the language, the experience of the language permeating my mind, and coming out of my lips, sounding like French. The making-sense through clouds of incomprehension, the struggling to put words together. Realising one morning that I had been dreaming in French. Mixing French words into my English diary entries.
My exchange family took me to Paris, on what must have been a rather classical trip, now I think about it. I remember Napoleon’s tomb and how ugly the heavy red stone seemed. The scale of that ugliness, echoed through the building. Paris too must have been where I first saw paintings by David, and found them amazing. (And was later sneered at by another 15 year old for my ‘bourgeois’ taste – it was not taste, I now know, only the intensity of a new experience.) I remember, now as I write this, that, in the Eiffel Tower, we sat in the restaurant, and the taste of the blackcurrant tart I chose.
Notre Dame I remember from later visits to the city, much later. Perhaps it was closed then. We went to the Sainte Chapelle – I have no words for the beauty of that stained glass, only an image in my memory.
Back home, outwardly the same but changed forever by that experience, I found a copy of National Geographic Magazine with an article on the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and photos. I must have spent hours poring over it. A new and encouraging French teacher at school kept my passion for the language alive. I started writing beyond the textbook exercises, poems and then a novel. Set in Notre Dame, my story had a young woman imprisoned in the cathedral in some imagined dark, corridored space behind the altar, made to worship Niobe, by crying. Niobe is a character in Greek mythology whose saw her children all killed, and who weeps forever, even though turned to stone. My heroine was forced to cry, her tears dedicated to the cult of Niobe, until rescued by a young man who fell in love when he caught a glimpse of her in the cathedral. (I know – but I was only 15, and it was in French!) My plot required me to know the layout of the cathedral, to imagine running through it, finding hidden places.
My experience of France as a young girl, and of living, and then writing, myself into the language was profound. It remained very hidden though – only that sympathetic teacher really knew how deeply it affected me. It became stitched into my life and then submerged, by maths, marriage and maternity. At several points in time, I’d be reminded of those earlier emotional experiences, revive my rusty vocabulary, even visit Paris.
When I began my shift to a poetic life, the experience very quickly spoke up and wanted to be noticed, acknowledged. I dug out the Baudelaire poems I had so loved and re-read them, spoke them aloud, wrote them out, lived my way back in. I started going back to France for holidays, watching French films.
I revitalized this important strand and braided it back into my life – connecting with the passions of the schoolgirl, I felt more whole and more alive, not hiding them anymore but allowing their joy.
When we choose to be deeply alive, we become more vulnerable. And so today, when I woke to images of Notre Dame burning, it hurt. The hurting reminds us of what matters.
I’d love to hear about a place that moved you as a teenager, and that you have brought back into your life. Or would love to. Do write in the comments below .