ello, pencil. Hello, notepad. The last time you two came together to write anything for this column was five months ago. Let me bring you up to date.
I have moved to Paris, begun my dual degree in history and English literature, survived a mugging in my apartment at the hands of three rather unsavory characters, and had a steel-plated door installed in lieu of the older, less secure one. I have caught up with the classes missed in my absence, juggled four periods of history whilst striving to keep a space in the back of my head for remembering the royal succession of the Tudors, English grammar, and the indigestible rules of dreaded phonetics. For a few hours several weeks ago, I was flung back to my old stomping ground, Flers, where I attended high school, to collect my baccalaureate certificate in the town’s chamber of commerce, a repelling location that resembles an administrative building from “1984.” That aside, I did learn, while there, that I was high school valedictorian.
But, pencil and writing pad, we shall not touch any of these things. In the long run, all I would ultimately succeed in doing would be in “gonfler les chevilles,” a perfectly French expression, gloriously untranslatable but roughly equivalent to “getting bigheaded”, though literally it means something more along the lines of “having one’s ankles inflate.”
What inspired me to reintroduce you two was an informal assignment my dad gave me: to describe what it was like to fall asleep in Montmartre, in my eleven-square-meter apartment. Now that the couple next door have ceased their nocturnal acrobatics, I can collect my thoughts – but I may stray from the assignment somewhat.
In an earlier draft of this article, I hoped to include references to the periods of All Saints and All Souls in the Catholic liturgical calendar. These cover late October to early November. Now, in December, Advent will suit me fine; as in a symphonic suite, the overall mood of one religious period segues gracefully into the other – despite circumstances in today’s world that are far from graceful. With a combination of the events in the Middle East, Ukraine, and in innumerable other places, plus a worrying climatic situation, so many people have experienced “swift and sudden falls from grace” (the words are Michael Jackson’s, from his 1997 song Stranger in Moscow). The words of the pastor in the interdenominational American Church I attended last Sunday, located near the Seine, gave voice to the lament of many: where is God now? Why is He not interceding? What redemption, what solace will Christmas, or any other celebration for that matter, bring?
Pencil and pad, I don’t want you to answer these questions, to proselytize or prophesy; those are not my areas. Yet, as Mark Antony states in his eulogy for the eponymous character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “here I am to speak what I do know.” What I know are big words – take them as fragmented recollections from which I hope to gain something.
My daily commute begins with walking to the Abbesses metro station, located on a square where everything seems quintessentially Parisian. It would be enough if there was only a carousel, a dragonfly-inspired glasswork covering the station entrance designed in the early 20th century by the architect Hector Guimard. But that would be forgetting to mention the nearby presence of St. Jean (one of Paris’ only brick churches), the Sacré Coeur basilica a few blocks down, and in December, a Christmas-themed market with wood cabin stands and festive lights. Every time I come up the final flight of the 144 steps in the station, my nostrils are tickled by the wafts of churros and mulled wine. That part is kitsch, you may say. And on a bad day, I would agree; most times, I would beg to differ.
On this evening, I had passed the Abbesses bookstore – whose owner is like another mother to me – and saw two young boys outside the public middle school across the street, on the Rue Yvonne le Tac.
Both the street and the school are named after a Parisian schoolteacher and member of the French Resistance during the Second World War, who was deported to but survived both Auschwitz and Ravensbrück camps. Her house in Brittany served as a clandestine passage point for Resistance members traveling between London and France.
Now, over 70 years after her death, two boys outside the school door were playing. Not on their phones, mind you. Simply kicking a football across to each other, keeping score, one laughing if he made a good save, the other bartering to make sure his opponent had counted the score right. Aside from the death and birth rates, a place’s survival can be gauged by whether you ever see a football kicked by children in the street.
A few days later, I was doing my regular commute and across from the same street when I heard a harmonica being played. I looked up at the scaffold of a nearby apartment to see a workman happily playing it. I smiled at him and waved, even though we did not know each other. Just as, in the same way, I do not necessarily know God personally.
When I do go to the Sacré Coeur basilica – as I will go tonight after a run, a trip to the laundromat and a hearty dinner – I walk towards the chapel behind the sanctuary where the Virgin Mary’s assumption into Heaven is depicted, and look up. The foreshortening in the dome mosaic makes the entire celestial ascension seem close and tangible. God and I are pals, even though I do not always think so and our friendship plays out in often unexpected ways.
One of these such ways was when, at the end of a service at the American Church, I caught a glimpse of a photograph taken there in 1963. It showed James Baldwin addressing a crowd of American expatriates. Later, I learned that the reason for his speech there was the launching of a campaign from France for the release of a then-imprisoned Martin Luther King. Yes, God and I are pals at the heart of it, and time and again, He sends these little indications.
I spoke with my parents in Normandy while they worked on our yearly Christmas card, a tradition we have kept for as long as I can remember. In past years, my stepfather and I would work on the drawings; more recently, to our delight, my mother began to contribute more of her own drawings, some of them explicitly religious, others less so. This year, the design is a view of the Sacré Coeur with a small Nativity scene on the front lawn. After looking at early versions of the card sent over WhatsApp, I suggested adding a darker-colored sky in addition to a Nativity star.
Because there was always something fascinating to me about the marriage between religious imagery, especially pertaining to Christmas, and cityscapes. For me, this fusion encapsulates the complexity of Christmas and, in the Christian traditions I was raised in, Christ’s coming: a small, still voice amidst chaos. The circumstances surrounding his birth were far from peaceful. The somber Coventry Carol performed for the first time in the 16th-century Coventry Mystery Plays retold the story of the Massacre of the Innocents, Jewish boys of two years of age or under slain by orders of the Judean king Herod.
While the story may not be historical, it does raise the point that Christ was in danger as soon as he came into the world, and that a prince of this world desired to keep hold of the power he had. Interestingly, the story shares parallels with some Egyptian mythology that I have studied, namely the Westcar papyrus discovered in 1823 in which the 4th dynasty pharaoh Cheops is afraid in the same way as Herod after hearing a magician prophesy the births of the kings of the 5th dynasty. This was centuries before Christ, yet the broad outlines of human nature change little. The silent night that we sing of each year is hardly ever that.
But perhaps what is important is finding the “silence” wherever it lies, whenever it makes itself known to us. It does not have to be found in a church, or when overlooking a valley, or when sitting at the mouth of a remote cave like an eleventh-century hermit. And if we try to force silence on the night when it clearly is not silent, we would be kidding ourselves.
Still, footballs are being kicked by children, and A Christmas Carol is still read. John Lennon’s voice still prays for peace in Happy Xmas (War is Over). When the New Year comes, people of all ages in French bakeries, florists and markets will wish each other “bonne année et bonne santé, surtout” (“a happy new year and good health, most importantly”).
And maybe this writer will occasionally come up for air to say to himself the words that he must understand does not apply solely to Christmas: O viens Emmanuel, nous dévoiler le monde fraternel (“O come Emmanuel, to unveil unto us a world of brotherhood”).
No, the night is not silent. But we strive and write, pray and perpetuate our stories, in the hopes that one night will be.