Every time I visit Paris, I light candles. The tradition began the summer after Class VI, during Winsor’s French exchange program. We had just toured Notre-Dame—following a guide brandishing an umbrella above his head—before being allowed to roam as free as a set of teachers are willing to permit twenty-five teenagers. I remember breathing in the smell of stone and feeling a pervasive chill despite the heat outside. The Rose windows glowed and, though I was not raised religious, I felt something. It seems as if most articles published over the past few weeks have mentioned how everywhere in France is measured by its distance to Notre-Dame, so, maybe fifteen-year-old me felt centered, or at the center of things. Whatever it was, as the group was leaving for the next point on the tour, I grabbed a friend’s shoulder and headed back into the cathedral. I dropped two euros in a box, lifted up a candle, and lit it from the fire of another. My small camera chimed as I turned it on and framed the photo with one of the Rose windows poking into a corner of the background.
When we reemerged, the Winsor chaperone cornered us saying she couldn’t find us, that we were late, that she had been worried. I apologized and told her I had lit a candle for my grandmother, a deeply religious woman who had passed away when I was young. The teacher paused, smiled sweetly, and then shooed us towards the next stop: Berthillon ice cream. That night I sent the photo to my mother, a woman from whom my love of Paris was a natural inheritance. She replied with “Leah, you are the best,” and I knew I had done something small that meant something large.
Two years later and I was living in Paris, returning to Notre-Dame to light two candles: one for my grandmother and one for my mother who had passed away a month after my high school graduation. Three years later and I was back, this time to light a third candle for that same teacher who had chased me down with a wagging finger and shooed me away with a laugh and the promise of something sweet.
Notre-Dame has burned before and, in all likelihood, probably will burn again for She has always hosted flames in her belly. I feel there’s doubtlessly something profound here to say about fire and ashes, phoenixes and life, yet what to proclaim exactly escapes me at present. I have mourned and celebrated my ladies in Our Lady and, logically, I know that Her destruction does not signal any sort of cessation or erasure of being. Still—the sadness of temporary damage has stuck in my throat, reminding me that the rational loss of something cannot outweigh its emotional counterpart. And the emotional density of Notre-Dame is thick.
It’s sad, as are many things, but that sadness is just for now, just for this moment. Talks of rebuilding are already being had. Architectural plans are being drawn. Funds are being allocated. What was is gone, but Notre-Dame still stands—a little damaged, a little missing, smelling of stone and ash and the beginning scents of summer.