Maia Toll
This must be impossible, I thought. So I hit play and watched again.

For the seventeenth time, smoke billowed in a tawny cloud, a sunset glow lighting Notre Dame’s spire. It blackened, becoming skeletal, a tensile outline against the evening sky. For a heart wrenching moment, it seemed to become something indestructible… and so its collapse made no sense. In mere seconds the new and starkly drawn structure was completely erased.

I’ve never been to Notre Dame (or to Paris for that matter), but in architecture school I studied its revolutionary flying buttresses and drenched myself in images of its stained glass windows. In dreams, I’ve sat high on the turrets sharing a pizza with the gargoyles and prowled the crypts below the cathedral searching for the Roman ruins on which it was built.

Notre Dame has become, in my heart, a symbol not for a city or a religion, but for the mind-boggling ingenuity of the human race. Flying buttresses changes what was possible in architecture making dark windowless spaces airy and light. It’s this creative power that gives me hope through the madcap denial of the melting ice sheets, the senseless starvation of millions of people who don’t have a seat at our bountiful table, and the daily angst of non-recyclable Terra chip bags (a veggie chip brand that’s named Terra, which literally means “earth,” helping destroy the planet one delicious chip at a time— yes, Alanis, it really is ironic).

When I spiral into overwhelm and don’t know how to stop being a part of the problem, I pull out one of my architectural history books and remind myself of the mastery it took to build the pyramids and the Parthenon. In photos, I walk through Faye Jones’ Thorncrown Chapel or the masterpiece of La Sagrada Familia. We humans are capable of getting it so beautifully and breathtakingly right.

We humans are capable of getting it so beautifully and breathtakingly right. Click To Tweet


As the cathedral burned, I watched from half a world away as Parisians and tourists lined the streets and began to sing. I stared in awe and wonder as the squares of Paris became sacred space, an outdoor church whose congregants, people of all races and creeds and political leanings, held, just this once, the same faith. Faith in the over-arching goodness of humanity. Belief in our ability get it right.

Maybe we needed this.

Maybe we needed to lose something precious, not in dribs and drabs, but instantly so that we would notice the wonder that is disappearing more slowly: the honey bees and the monarch butterflies, the goldenseal and the white sage.

Maybe we needed this to look at the erosion of our democracy. To be reminded that our laws and social structures should celebrate our shared humanity. That together we are on our knees watching one of our best creations burn.

Maybe, just maybe, moments like this are opportunities to stand with each other and remember the glory we can create with our hands and our minds. Maybe this is a chance to come together to restore what we’ve lost and save what we’re still losing.

Maybe this is a moment when we can remember that we still have a chance to get it beautifully and mind-bogglingly right.


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