Smack my head

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

[Note: this was written in April of 2019.]

When I tell people I’m a writer, they often ask if my books are about our travels. Not really, I say. At least, not yet. The story I’m currently working on—about an art curator, Posey, whose prize discovery disappears before she can even open an exhibit—is meant to be the first in a series, which will have episodes set in various places around the world. 

As a matter of fact, the section of the book that I’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks is set in—only a mild spoiler—Paris. I’ve even been toying with taking a short jaunt to the City of Light soon, to do a little research and get the details right. The books will be about art—thematically, I want to explore the role of art in history, culture, civilization, daily life—and Paris is a particularly good place to think about art, right? Plus, any excuse to go to France. 

Then last week, as pretty much everyone on social media seems to know by now, a Parisian icon, Notre Dame Cathedral, caught on fire. I got an NYT notification on my phone, and immediately turned to instagram (where I follow several foodie accounts in Paris), and sure enough, there she was, that graceful spire collapsing in the blaze.

Like almost everyone else in my IG feed, I immediately scrolled back through my old photos and found one to post, my personal homage to one of the world’s most beautiful buildings. I was genuinely saddened.

By the next day, though, the outpouring of grief (and of money!) began to make me a little uncomfortable. I was already feeling a bit discombobulated; we arrived in Madrid last week, after 4.5 months in Africa, and the wealth disparity is hitting me harder than it ever has before. A couple of days ago I went into a store that sold all kinds of beautiful little frivolities—notebooks covered in glitter unicorns, inspirational refrigerator magnets, and shower caps decorated with a wide range of cartoon characters (seriously?). It was all a bit overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure what to do with my emotions, or even how to name them. So I spent the afternoon snapping at my husband, as one does.

Then yesterday, we woke up to the news of the bombings in Sri Lanka.

For those of you who don’t know, several churches were bombed during Easter services, as well as several large hotels. The death toll is now somewhere around 300.

We spent a month in Sri Lanka, over the Christmas period of 2017. It’s one of the most physically beautiful places we’ve been, in 4 years of travel. It has an ancient and fascinating history, marked most recently by a long, bloody civil war and the 2004 tsunami.

I have faces and names—Nihal and Kelum and Andree—in my head that I associate with that island—meals eaten, kindnesses given and received, moments of (and I say this with all sincerity) life-changing beauty.

We stayed in one lovely little hotel, owned by an Australian woman who had gone there during the clean-up efforts after the tsunami. She told about renovating the building, stripping out the bathroom fixtures to be replaced, and offering the old ones to the workers. It seemed like a kind, earth-friendly gesture.

“Madam, I can’t take that. I don’t have plumbing.”

Confronting was the word she used to describe the feeling. It’s confronting, when you don’t even realize you’re making assumptions, never mind what those assumptions are. We had a lot of confronting moments in Sri Lanka, and even more in Africa, this past winter. I use the word often.

Ever since the fire in Paris, people have been donating money for the reconstruction effort. Roughly a billion dollars have been given. That’s great, and the fact that there were bombings in Sri Lanka doesn’t lessen my sadness over the destruction at Notre Dame, but I am having real difficulty with the notion of a billion dollars.

And this morning, when I skimmed through my social media, I saw not one mention of Sri Lanka. Perhaps that was too much to expect—so many westerners have no knowledge of the island. It’s so far away. We don’t know anyone who’s been there. We can only handle so much tragedy. Yada, yada.

But I just can’t wrap my brain around that billion dollars.

No one died in that fire. Not one person.

I wrote the above paragraphs, in a blaze of indignation or self-righteousness or some kind of disgust with humankind—seriously? A billion dollars for a building, when people are being blown up in a country where a lot of people don’t even have indoor plumbing? What is wrong with our priorities?!—and then I got in the shower.

In the shower, I had a revelation (yes, I realize the irony—indoor plumbing). This is precisely the dilemma that I want to explore in the books I’m writing. When we have to choose between saving human patrimony or actual living humans, how do we decide? I’ve long been fascinated by the role and importance of art during the Second World War; the value placed on the artifacts of western civilization. Difficult decisions were made—accomplish an objective, or spare some monument? Bomb the target, perhaps shortening the war and saving lives, or move on to something less precious, perhaps dragging out the carnage even longer? 

It’s easy for me to have opinions when the art in question is the monastery at Montecassino, or the ancient bridges across the Arno in Florence. It’s also easy to be horrified when ancient art is destroyed deliberately, as were the Buddhas in Syria.

But as far as we know at this point, the fire at Notre Dame was an accident, whereas the bombings in Sri Lanka were an obviously deliberate attack, designed to kill as many people as possible.

Wow. I think I’m a little appalled by how appalled I am. And also how long it took me to figure out that my outrage is precisely the gray area—the quick judgment, the one-sided morality—that I’m trying to explore in my stories. *smack my head*

I don’t know if my novels will do justice to the questions I want to explore, but I sense there will be no simple right answers. 

Are my books about our travels? Well, perhaps more so than I realized, if I can slow down and pay better attention.

Take care,


P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to subscribe.

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