Duality, Neutrality, Strangers, and Notre Dame

I’m sitting at the Cushman Cafe with Aviva. She’s across the table from me doing homework; she just emailed me a link to the short story she’s writing about, “The Moths” by Helena Maria Viramontes. She asked me if the name of the story should be in quotes or italicized, and the woman at the table next to ours chimed in with an answer. You could tell from the way she spoke that she herself must be a teacher of some kind; sure enough, turns out she’s a professor at Middlebury College, down here to give a talk on Thoreau and race. The cafe is comfortably full, just the right amount of quiet and music and low conversation to make for a good space to write and work.

My Facebook feed is consumed by news of Notre Dame collapsing in flame. Just yesterday, I shared a photo of myself from the summer of 1988, when I visited Paris for the first time with my parents, including that magnificent cathedral. Its scale was so beyond anything I’d experienced before at age 14. Incense filled my nostrils and I remember lighting a candle, not really knowing what it meant but feeling the pull towards meaning, towards spirit, towards history, towards loss and ache and beauty and so many things I couldn’t yet and sometimes still struggle to name.

I was talking with a client last week about hopelessness. The evening before our call, I’d been reading "Yearnings," a book by Rabbi Irwin Kula. I started this book in December and am very slowly making my through it, reading a chapter or half a chapter even every few weeks. I’m ok with the pacing, as each time I do dip into those pages, I learn something new or deepen something I’d learned but perhaps forgotten to live with.

In this case, duality was on my mind as our coaching call began. Holding two seemingly disparate truths at the same time. Two hands, two beliefs, two emotions, two ideas. Historically for me, this would signal some kind of emergency, an urgent call to choose sides.

This makes me think of Elie Wiesel's words, from his 1986 speech upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize: "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor; never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere."

A few hours have passed since I started writing. Now I'm sitting at a small round plastic table at the rock gym, while Pearl boulders. I watch him climb up, across, down, up, using nothing but his body weight, strength, and balance to keep him on the wall. So much of my life revolves around where my kids are at any given moment, which I suppose is one definition of motherhood. But I also know better than to assume this is how motherhood is for everyone or even most people. I'm reminded of something I wrote yesterday: "Where is the line between focusing on one’s family and work out of both desire, devotion, and necessity, and at a certain point using these as avoidance tactics for spending time with oneself?"

And what does this have to do with Notre Dame, with duality with neutrality?

Talking with my client last week about duality. This and this. I am tired and I am motivated. I am sad and I am hopeful. The world is broken and the world is burning and the world is beautiful. Things are never simple, and yet there's a simplicity in claiming the complexity.

I get confused sometimes, thinking about these things. Is holding space for seeming contradictions a form of neutrality? What about confronting that which oppresses us from within -- our own beliefs, our own self-imposed limitations? Sometimes taking a neutral stance can be a way of "not taking the bait." That's hardly a passive way of being; that kind of neutrality is making a bold statement.

After the professor left the cafe earlier, I looked her up, curious to learn more about her work. A quick search of her full revealed a number of academic results. And then it dawned on me to shorten her first name to a nickname. Sure enough, we are Facebook friends! We have several real-life friends in common. I knew something about her had been so familiar, and I had to laugh (and smack my head) that we'd had a nice connection without putting 2+2 together.

It made me think about social media, and how we know each other but often don't know each other, wouldn't even recognize each other on the street if we met. This, too, is duality: We get to know each other through writing, through sharing words, and we are strangers.

When we got here, the light was really beautiful. That striking dark grey-blue of sky, sun bright, the tenderest greens and reds of spring illuminated. It has since clouded over, and the temperature has dropped. Pearl hurls himself through space and I look up, smiling. There is nothing neutral about my love. It's as close as I'll ever get to something pure, just as Notre Dame is an example of something purely beautiful, something we can all agree on.

I'm all over the place, literally. Back home now, with rice and beans cooking on the stove, the dog asleep on my foot.

Loss licks at the edges of our lives like flames we can't fully extinguish. Grief is universal and searingly personal. These moments that rise up to remind us of what's sacred, even as what's sacred to me might not be to you, feel precious somehow. Not precious in a coddling sort of way, but in a way that makes me want to stop everything for a moment. To take in the light. To say hello to a stranger who might turn out to be a friend. To watch as the skies keep changing and the smoke billows and we stand there, small, against centuries of strength and fragility and that which has withstood so much time.