The things we remember

At the K-8 school I attended as a child, lunchrooms were provided for the younger grades, but grades seven and eight were given off-campus lunch privileges and told to go figure it out on our own. (Were we allowed to use the lunchroom if it rained? I don’t remember; I’m sure we felt ourselves too cool to do so in any case.) My friend group rotated through a series of haunts: two local parks, one of which had a wonderful ravine where we hung a rope swing and occasionally lost our shoes in the mud; the two street corners right by the school, where the variety stores sold pizza slices and penny candy; a local grocery store with a small restaurant inside; and the homes of friends who lived near the school, if their parents would tolerate it. (Also if they didn’t tolerate it, just with more sneaking.)

In grade eight, we discovered the public library.

Not that any of us were unfamiliar with the concept, or even with that particular branch, which was about a ten minute walk from school. I passed it twice a day. But I don’t think any of us had realised that it was open during school hours. This branch’s children’s section took up nearly the entire basement of the building. It had a few computers, and orange carpet, and best of all, a secluded nook with low tables and chairs, where we chewed through our illicit sandwiches and everything the middle grade shelves had to offer: Archie comics, R. L. Stine, Judy Bloom, Lois Lowry, V. C. Andrews… Somewhere along the line, one of us (who?) was the first to discover Diane Duane.

(Aside: I have always been enchanted by the wonderful symmetry of that name. In grade two we used to sneak off to the girls’ bathroom, turn off the lights, and scare ourselves silly chanting BloodyMary BloodyMary BloodyMary into the mirror. Could I summon something with a well-timed DianeDuane DianeDuane DianeDuane? Perhaps I could, in the age of googling oneself. Diane, are you reading this? Sorry for being so weird! End of aside.)

I read The Book of Night with Moon, which concerns a group of wizard cats in NYC; I know this because I cheerfully plagiarized it in a short story I wrote that year. And I remember that story chiefly because my mother used it as an occasion to demonstrate how to use a semicolon to separate place names in a list. Thanks, Mom! What the plot of the book is I couldn’t tell you. Nor could I have given you any details about her Young Wizards series of books, which I assumed I hadn’t read when I started the first one earlier this month. But! I must have read them, because I chanced across this passage in Deep Wizardry (the second book in the series) and immediately recognized it:

I didn’t remember anything about the main characters, the thrust of the plot, the way magic works, or any of the books’ Very Exciting Adventury Stuff: becoming whales, going to Mars, battling the Lone Power in an alternate universe, fighting alongside and against various figures from Irish mythology, etc. etc. etc. None of that stuck. But this specific image, of learning to walk on the ocean — and, later, a short note on how tiring it was, because you had to use muscles that aren’t involved in walking on flat surfaces — for whatever reason, this is the nugget my brain decided to keep. Why? Beats me. But I’m delighted it did, and delighted for the memories it unlocked of those dusty lunch breaks in the far corner of the children’s library, sneaking chips and apples from our bags under the table, and passing around the books that turned out to be shaping us.

The burning of Notre-Dame

French Christians sing “Je vous salue, Marie” (Hail Mary) as the Cathedral burns last night:

I’ve been loosely following reactions to the news in a few forums I read. Most of the comments are about what you’d expect: shock and sadness at the fire, relief that no lives have been lost (or even reported hurt, last I’ve seen), speculation about the cause, people telling each other to stop speculating about the cause. Some are mourning the loss of so much of the Cathedral as a symbol of Christianity; others are pointing out that the Church is made out of people, not buildings; both parties, of course, are correct.

Notre-Dame is a building, of far less worth than human life. It can be rebuilt –it won’t be exactly the same, but it will survive in some form. Just look at Coventry Cathedral: despite its irreparable losses in the Blitz, the new Cathedral is beautiful and does a lovely job of incorporating the ruins of the old. Even with the loss of Notre Dame’s roof, and its spire, and its beautiful stained glass, the destruction was not complete.

At the same time, the Cathedral is much more than “just a building”. It is a symbol of history, memory, the sacred, of France herself. Its site has been a place of worship not just for the 850 years that Notre-Dame has stood, but for hundreds of years before that, dating back to at least the Roman era. Many Cathedrals have been lost to fire and other disasters throughout history (again: see Coventry), but this is the first that I have witnessed*, and I was moved to tears as I watched footage last night. We have lost something beautiful, haven’t we?

Notre-Dame is/was a symbol of Christianity in France — it is my prayer that the burning of the Cathedral will not be for nothing. I hope to see it restored and rebuilt, but more than that, I hope that this tragedy moves many in France and beyond to open not just their wallets for restoration efforts but their hearts to God. May these flames spark revival!

* NB: St Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit was also irreparably damaged by fire within recent memory (2005); however, I barely remember hearing about it at the time, so for me it doesn’t count as one I’ve personally “witnessed”.