Faces of kind strangers – that’s where my mind went racing after I learned of the horrible attacks on Paris last Friday.
I immediately thought of the robust older woman behind the Metro ticket window who reminded us of a character from The Triplets of Belleville and teased us about our spotty French as she helped us figure out our route to Versailles; the handsome young waiter who cheerfully and patiently translated an entire menu into English for us; the two little girls gleefully running around on a perfect Saturday in the Tuileries Garden; and the owner of the patisserie who smiled sweetly and playfully told us that she would speak English to us if we spoke French to her.
So many kind faces under attack.
Yes, yes, all lives matter but I have to be quite honest, this feels more personal to me than some of the other acts of terrorism across the world. Just last week I posted about my magical trip to Paris six weeks ago. It was my valentine to the City of Light. It was a bright and joyful post written before 129 faces were brutally erased. I could not write that post today.
I was grateful on Friday evening that my wife and I had made plans earlier in the week for a movie and dinner with dear friends. Otherwise, I’m sure we would have been glued to the television all evening. As it was, when our movie ended I checked my phone for an update on the situation and was so touched to have a handful of text messages from family and friends telling me that they were thinking of us and were grateful that we were home and safe.
I couldn’t help but wonder if those faces that had touched us were home safe, too. I felt afraid for them and heartbroken that their beautiful city had been attacked.
These global tragedies seem to bring out the best and the worst on Facebook. I find comfort in mass mourning on a public forum – like an ancient wailing wall. “Pray for Paris” was the overwhelming trending message on all social media Friday night.
And then, of course, before the blood stains were dry, came the blaming for the attacks. Pick one, pick two – Obama, Bush, Cheney, religion, Muslims, always the Muslims.
Why are we so afraid of intentional silence? Why can’t we be comfortable creating a space to ask ourselves some hard questions before spewing out empty answers?
I suppose it is fear because, deep down, we know we don’t have the answers.
I know I found a balm, as I so often do, in the words of others much wiser than me.
Saturday morning, I saw the author Anne Lamott’s post pop up in my feed. I felt better before I even read a word of it. If you’ve never read her stuff, leave this post and go straight to Amazon to download one of her books. I mean it. Go. You will thank me later.
On Facebook she writes in a rambling and raw stream of consciousness that makes you feel like she’s drinking coffee with you at your kitchen table in her bathrobe. Here’s an excerpt from her post on Saturday:
We’re at the beginning of human and personal evolution. Whole parts of the world don’t even think women are people.
So after an appropriate time of being stunned, in despair, we show up. Maybe we ask God for help. We do the next right thing. We buy or cook a bunch of food for the local homeless. We return phone calls, library books, smiles. We make eye contact with others, and we go to the market and flirt with old or scary unusual people who seem lonely. This is a blessed sacrament. Tom Weston taught me decades ago that in the face of human tragedy, we go around the neighborhood and pick up litter, even though there will be more tomorrow. It is another blessed sacraments. We take the action and the insight will follow: that we are basically powerless, but we are not helpless.
I have no answers but know one last thing that is true: More will be revealed. And that what is true is that all is change. Things are much wilder, weirder, richer, and more profound than I am comfortable with. The paradox is that in the reality of this, we discover that in the smallest moments of amazement, at our own crabby stamina, at kindness, to lonely people who worry us, and attention, at weeping willow turning from green to gold to red, and amazement, we will be saved.
I have been deeply moved and inspired by the resilience of the French people, so brave and adamant in vowing to retain their way of life, their precious joie de vivre. Yesterday, Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine, responded to the attacks with a provocative cover of a bullet-ridden man drinking a glass of champagne. The cover translates from the French: “They have weapons. Fuck them. We have champagne.”
This is not to imply that their reaction is at all cavalier. They are in deep mourning and carrying a grief that cannot be contained in the graves of the dead.
I have spent a lot of time since Friday looking at the photographs we took in Paris. There is a melancholy hue around them now. I’m sure that will lift in time but for now, it is necessary to sit with sorrow and confusion and reflect on the deplorable acts of November 13th.
I felt so helpless on Friday night and I was heartened by a post from travel guru Rick Steves. He wrote, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Paris, the victims, and their loved ones. And it remains my firmly held belief that the best way for Americans to fight terrorism is to keep on traveling.”
I’ve read so much commentary over the past several days that I can’t remember all of the sources and I’m sorry that I can’t credit the writer who said, “Paris is charming almost beyond what a heart can bear.”
And so were all of those faces I saw again on Friday night – charming beyond what a heart can bear.
My wife and I plan to return to Europe next summer and we will be armed with a powerful weapon against terrorism – a passport.
Vive la France!