I spent four years of Sundays in Paris dusting off a different book each week in the upstairs of Shakespeare and Company. They’d let me borrow it for a few hours to take to the park next door as long as I’d bring it back and return it to where I’d found it.
At the park, I’d sit across from the guy who’d always feed the pigeons, cooing at them while tossing handfuls of seeds. He had this little leather seed pouch, always overflowing. It occurred to me once that he had to actually go purchase the seeds at some point. He spent his own dang money to fill up his leather pouch just to feed pigeons. Did he list “buy bird seed” on a to-do list on the fridge? I’d read a few poems and then scrawl a paragraph or two in my notebook, later publishing them online. It was the writing I did in that park that my future-wife read long before we’d ever meet in person. Those moments on that bench became the first she’d know of my heart.
I always chose that bench despite the sheer quantity of pigeon dung because it had the best view of Notre Dame, with its centuries-old spire sticking up like a middle finger to 200 years of Parisian weather. Those Sundays, time was softer. An hour felt different, longer somehow. To this day, the coo of pigeons brings me right back to the center of Paris and to a life phase where everything was constantly expanding.
We’re all still trying to figure out how we could take for granted a nearly 1,000-year-old cathedral that belongs to a religion we may not be a part of. What is it about Notre Dame that so captured our imagination? What is this feeling we all have like we just got punched in the gut?
There’s a sense that this world is there waiting for us. The Taj Mahal is sitting there waiting and always will be. Angkor Wat is waiting. Rome’s Colosseum, China’s Great Wall, NYC’s Statue of Liberty — they’re all waiting for us to buy the ticket and go visit. No rush though, they’ll always be there. The fire at Notre Dame is a reminder that time has a nasty way of continuing on. Yes, these monuments are here now, to breathlessly experience and stand in a moment of utter wonder, to walk in the same footsteps as so many greats have before us. But for how long?
I always thought that what Shelley was trying to tell us in Ozymandias was that no matter what greatness we achieve in this oh-so-short life, it will soon fall away to the dust of time. Yet now I have a second meaning… That this world, these far off places, now more accessible than ever, are not to be taken for granted. The Taj Mahal won’t always be there waiting. At any moment, these great structures, testaments to human ingenuity and our perceptions of beauty, could fall. Without them, the world will seem just a little less extraordinary.
So to hell with putting off travel for another year. To hell with not buying the plane ticket, to adding instead of subtracting off that proverbial bucket list. This world is waiting. Its grandeur is waiting. But so is the park bench, across from a story waiting to be told that maybe someone needs to hear. We just need to get on the damn plane and make it happen.