Even now, this can happen

The burning of Notre Dame is breaking my heart.

I’ve read a lot of history. I could fill a whole post with nothing but a list of beautiful, significant buildings lost to fire. It’s happened before, many times, for thousands of years, all around the world. But it’s easy to fall into thinking that it can’t happen now. That sure, ordinary buildings may burn, because we can’t protect everything perfectly — but surely, with all our technology, we can keep the important places safe. The ones that matter not just to a few people, or a few hundred, or a few thousand, but millions upon millions.

But we can’t. Disasters still happen. We are not the unchallenged masters of our physical environment; things can still go wrong.

This one hits particularly hard for two reasons. One is that I was just there: when my husband and I visited Paris in 2013 the towers were closed for repairs, but after Imaginales last May I spent a few days there and got to climb up to meet the gargoyles. I haven’t been able to make myself look at many pictures, much less video, but even a glance was enough to give me that punch of I stood there. Right where it’s burning — I was there.

The other is more distant in some ways, but even closer in others. In 1666 the Great Fire of London burned, among other things, St. Paul’s Cathedral. Like Notre Dame, it was under repair at the time; the scaffolding surrounding it gave the spreading fire an easy foothold. That was 450 years ago, of course — but I researched it for In Ashes Lie, and then I wrote about it, immersing myself in that moment of terrible destruction. When I heard the spire of Notre Dame had collapsed . . . the spire of St. Paul’s had been gone for a century, thanks to a lightning strike, but the tower was still there when the Great Fire began. When it fell, it broke through the floor into a subterranean chapel where the booksellers of London had stored their wares for safekeeping. That image lives in my mind still. Notre Dame hits right where it already hurts, where a part of me has been grieving for a building I never saw.

I can’t follow the news right now. I’ll look when it’s over, when we know exactly how bad the damage is. I presume the cathedral will be rebuilt — and I know, because I read history, that this is part of how history works. That our world is a palimpsest, things erased and rewritten and revised and layered atop one another. The St. Paul’s Cathedral that stands now in London isn’t the building that burned in 1666, but it contains some pieces of it, and the cathedrals that went before (more than one) are all part of the story of that place.

But knowing that scar tissue will eventually become part of the beauty doesn’t make it hurt any less right now.

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