Performing a Carnival of Joie de Vivre on November 14


In October a Russian plane went down over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. I have friends from Russia and from Egypt, and in the first panicked minutes after I heard about that crash, as it was made clear the plane was packed with Russians and a few Ukrainians, I began reaching out: are you all right? Is your family all right? Is there anything I can do? I was very lucky, or perhaps I should say my friends were: their families were all right, home in Moscow and Saint Petersburgh, and they were here.

Beirut followed close on the heels of the Russian plane: tragedy, and heartbreaking heroism, chronicled in paper after paper. I am addicted to current events; I read news in three or four languages, from multiple countries and continents. I like to be informed, though it is a singularly heartbreaking endeavor.

And then, too close to catch our collective breath, came the attack on Paris. For me, as for many Americans, Paris holds a special place. I am a musician’s daughter and a writer’s granddaughter; I grew up half on stage, half in the shadowy world of backstage, and I write as well. In many ways I am most at home in the world of the arts: for all its flaws, I know better how to navigate it than any other. Paris is, in many ways, the symbolic heart of our western artistic and cultural world; those who died were not so different from me, as they ate at cafés and went to concerts and giged.

Lorado Taft’s The Fountain of Time in Washington Park. Image by Conrad LeeWikimedia Commons.

Paris is the symbolic capital of another thing as well: the French language. My mother, born in Vermont and come to maturity in Wisconsin, is a French speaker. She spoke to us all in French, often: I think she frequently had no idea she’d slipped out of English and into her other mother tongue. Québéc and Montreal hold a special place in my heart, though of course I’ve never been–childhood vacations were exclusively to backwoods places, and though I’ve canoed the Boundary Waters and learned how to deal with sharing the woods with bears, I’ve yet to visit New York City.

And on Saturday, still reeling, still unsure if my mother’s colleagues who call Paris home were alive, if family friends’ Parisian family had come through the attacks or not, I went into Chicago. It was the sort of trip one has to make anyone: sometimes one must visit the music shops to pick up the music one has on hold, after all.

I didn’t know what to expect: Chicago is a major city, and, though authorities had said they planned to rather play it by ear, both my mother and I assumed there would be a greater police presence than usual. There was–but there was something else, too, something far more vital and organic.

There was something close to a carnival downtown on Saturday, an almost frantic performance of joie de vivre. Downtown Chicago is always packed, but on Saturday evening, though it was late and in November, the streets were so crowded that we moved shoulder-to-shoulder both north and south. It was a carnival of frenetic merrymaking, a wild and pulsing and mad joie de vivre that I don’t think I have ever quite felt, before.

Because of course we were caught up in it, a little. I dragged my mother north to see Trump Tower, since somehow she’s not registered it before. I pointed out the glories of the champaign bottle better known as the Carbide & Carbon building, designed by the Burnhams to look like their bootleg champaign bottle, because what else would one design a building to look like, during Prohibition? Champaign it is. Which, of course, fit rather perfectly with the mood in the city on Saturday evening as well.

We have a thing, in the faith in which I was raised, called “vocal ministry.” Since we have no preacher, any member, or visitor, can give vocal ministry, which is nothing more than a fancy word for getting up (well, usually getting up) and speaking, or singing, or reciting. I hate speaking in public. I have panic attacks and nightmares about speaking in public. I stutter and stumble and never know quite what to say, only to find it, later, in words: because words, it seems, are the tools of my trade.

This is one of the times, however, when it is difficult for me to find words, even in their pure written form. I remember the days that went by without knowing if my uncle had made it out of the Trade Center alive, and the agonizing relief that he had, and that my aunt’s plane had never made it off the ground that day. I worry about my friends, and about their families.

It’s hard to find the words to ask friends to be careful, to look out, when they should not have to fear. My contacts are dusted off; I’ll be in touch more often. This year’s Messiahs will mean something more to my mother, as she sees colleagues whom she feared might have lost their lives. We go on–people go on everywhere, from Kenya and Nigeria to Lebanon and Syria and France–because we have no choice.

Be careful is such a fragile setting of words, as delicate and as breakable as blown glass. Ten cuidado, tenga Ud. cuidado: fragile little words. But they are all the words I have, and so I offer them: be careful, que tenga(n) cuidado.

The Japanese Peace Bell … at United Nations Headquarters, New York City. Image by Rodsan18Wikimedia Commons.