The Power of Place

It’s a different kind of tragedy when a great part of the collective human heritage is destroyed, but it’s a tragedy nonetheless.

While watching Notre Dame de Paris be engulfed by skyscraper-high flames and billowing plumes of black smoke yesterday, my art historian friend Jenna remarked, “When the essence of personhood and how we measure time and history and art and who we are is completely destroyed, I feel like we have a sense of loss that is different than the loss of human life. Grief comes in many forms.” I agree: it’s imperative that we value more than just human life. We must value art, history, science, and especially those extraordinary cultural spaces that connect us with each other through time and space.

As I watch people from around the world share their memories of Notre Dame de Paris, I’m moved by the power of place. This one cathedral captivated and touched the lives of millions of people, leaving a lasting memory of peace, majesty, beauty, and a rare connection to the past. Through the tragedy of its destruction, I’m soothed by the sense of the communal grief. While Parisians lined the streets weeping into their bottles of wine, I was likewise commiserating with friends and colleagues in Ohio. We shared our own memories of visiting, which now feel like stories from a history book.

I’m grateful and overwhelmed with my good fortune to have visited Notre Dame before it burned. My strongest memories are from my second visit when I was twenty and with my study-abroad roommates and friends Carolyn and Austa. We visited in February and it was forecasted to be frigid cold in Paris so I bought a new winter coat at an Italian department store for the trip. Our hotel was very near the Notre Dame and because – for some reason that still baffles me – we didn’t want to use the Metro (?!) we had the distinct pleasure of frequently walking past the cathedral.

Walking up to the massive structure from the back, I was completely struck by Notre Dame’s immensity paired with delicate beauty. Every description from every book can’t do this building justice. It soars, it floats, yet it stands strong and sturdy. I might be historicizing, but I hope that Carolyn and Austa remember walking around the building, backdropped by an astonishing blue sky, fingers freezing on our cameras, in near silence. Maybe we were exhausted from walking a gazillion miles in Paris the day before, but I remember that we were simply in awe.

At some point we went inside Notre Dame and I was shocked that there was an actual mass taking place while we were inside. Spaces like this are electric with an energy that cannot be conveyed in a photograph. I’m not Catholic, but certain Holy spaces like Notre Dame – no matter the religion – are imbued with the ferocity of their believers. The sanctity of the space seeps into your bones and demands respect. Medieval architects knew what they were doing when they created the flying vaulted interior of Notre Dame, airy and impossible, reaching into the heavens.

On the morning after the fire at Notre Dame de Paris, I’m reflecting on the tragedy. For me, it is a staggering reminder of the power of place, the importance of art, and the fleeting, fragile, nature of life on earth. If there’s something that you’ve been waiting to do, whether it’s take that trip or go to that new restaurant or even just pick up the phone to call an old friend, don’t wait another day.

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