Animal Omens, Apocalyptic Metaphors, The Meaning of Notre Dame, And Looking For God’s House
This spring came the plague of butterflies. For two weeks in March, millions of painted lady butterflies flew through Southern California. Painted ladies visit Los Angeles every year on their migration from the Mojave and Colorado deserts to the Pacific Northwest, but rarely in such astounding numbers. This year their population was boosted by the equally apocalyptic superbloom, as record-breaking winter rains carpeted the deserts at the edges of the city with flowers. Here in the center the streets were choked with butterflies, parking lots and freeways massed with insects blinking orange and black like signal beacons.
The butterflies put me in mind of the cicadas that would erupt onto the streets of Shanghai in the summer, but where the cicadas came to the city to die, obscenely and extravagantly, our butterflies were very much alive. I never saw one die. Every time I drove my car through a cloud of butterflies, braced for a splattering on my windshield, every one would surf away on an eddy of breeze instead. It was easy to compare them to spirits, they were so lightly here, but walking in a strip mall parking lot through tumbling clouds of butterflies that surrounded but never touched me, I had the notion the butterflies were flying through me, that they were solid and I was the ghost.
There were butterflies everywhere, from Pasadena to the 405, but I loved them best beside the brutal, apocalyptic beauty of the Valley, itself so self-sufficient and so alien, resistant to interpretation and impossible to destroy.
People made a lot of jokes about Biblical miracles and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paul Thomas Anderson. The butterflies felt almost too on the nose as a metaphor for something, immigration or climate catastrophe or just the indefatigable presence of hope, though finally it was just what it was, perhaps a billion butterflies passing right through thirteen million people.
In Sunday school we were all taught that the church was God’s house. All churches were God’s house, they added, and also all synagogues and mosques, and also nature, and also all the world, and also our own hearts. It was an impressive real estate portfolio.
All my life I have been obsessed with the question of immanence vs. transcendence. To simplify a bit, immanence is the idea that God exists within and through the material world. Transcendence is the idea that God exists outside the material world. The question comes down to, where is God’s house? The problem might sound abstract, but to me it is fiercely urgent and personal, tied to questions about why I’m alive and what I’m supposed to do while I am, and where to find joy and comfort in the world I’m passing through.
Notre Dame was burning and everyone on Twitter was sure it was a metaphor for something. It was a harbinger of climate change, an indictment of multiculturalism, a punishment for the corrupt Catholic church. It was the perfect image for 2019, an edifice that had withstood eight hundred years, destroyed by venality and carelessness, while millions of people sat helplessly by watching it on screens. It was the end of western civilization, whether or not you were glad to see it go.
In fact, beautiful and holy places are always being destroyed, by accident or conflict or time or neglect, and many people were understandably upset that the white, western world found almost a billion dollars in donations for Notre Dame overnight and hardly a penny for other irreplaceable treasures destroyed by imperialism and greed. Notre Dame, too, has been destroyed before, many Twitter commentators were quick to mention, as armchair historians frothed alongside anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, strident antitheists, college kids posting pictures of their spring break in Paris, and scolds telling college kids to stop posting pictures of their spring break in Paris.
The day Notre Dame caught fire, I couldn’t stop crying. I sat in my parked car in front of each of my appointments and cried and scrolled through Twitter trying to figure out the extent of the damage. I couldn’t stand to read any more opinions, consider any more takes, know anything but a simple accounting of what was lost and what was saved.
I know it’s absurd to expect a cathedral not to function symbolically — a cathedral is a basically a symbolism machine — but in my grief I didn’t want Notre Dame to mean anything more than its material presence: the deep, comfortable dimness, the blunted echo of footsteps, the deep, comfortable dimness; the blunted echo of footsteps; rows and rows of votive candles burning evenly in the unmoving air.
Animals have been acting weird around me lately. It started last summer when a coyote crossed my path. We were driving along a winding mountain road on our way up to a potential wedding venue in the San Bernardino Mountains when a large coyote walked directly in front of our car and then, when we stopped to let him pass, he stood there instead, staring at us evenly and deliberately. Southern Californians see coyotes all the time, but this seemed — and I know this sounds crazy, but it seemed like he was standing there on purpose, almost posing, like he wanted to be very sure we saw him.
The following month, we were at an open house for a sprawling, overgrown property near Sun Valley. William had to go to the bathroom and no he could not wait, so I broke away from the group and walked down the steep, dusty driveway looking for a place to discreetly let him go, when a western racer snake slithered across our path. Like the coyote, it paused and posed, pointedly revealing himself to us.
So that was two animals crossing my path — one for the wedding, one for buying a house — and so I started poking around into what it all meant. (I also found a bighorn sheep in a ball of melted wax in a ceromancy class, but that’s another story for another time.) Unfortunately, googling “animal omens” leads to a lot of contradictory interpretations and imprecise, appropriative references to a mishmash of indigenous traditions from every continent.
On these sites, animals are called by their capitalized names, no article — the wisdom of Crow and Bear, as presented by the kind of white people who believe they have a spirit animal. What’s more, spirit animals are not great communicators. I learned that coyotes are either an incitement to be more playful or a warning against being too cavalier; snakes ask us to rush towards change or perhaps to slow things down. All animals are tricksters to somebody, and the appearance of any animal in your path means to take caution (well, obviously).
“So should I buy this house?” I asked Snake, but we were outbid and so Market answered instead.
When I was a little girl, my father told me about the generations of workers who built the great European cathedrals and how a mason or a glazier would work his entire life on a project he would never live to see completed, in the faith that he was contributing to something bigger than he was. (My father is Jewish, but he is also a medieval history major and so he loves cathedrals.)
For the writer Luc Sante, Notre Dame is a symbol of the poor, disorderly, dirty, vital Paris all but eradicated by middle-class respectability, corporate-fueled “revitalization,” and bland globalist aesthetics. In his The Other Paris, he quotes Blaise Cendrars on the permanent settlement that existed for the hundred years it took to build Notre Dame:
“A swarm of ordinary folk, vagabonds, pilgrims, some wealthy merchant who had taken a vow after eluding highwaymen, along with his servants and his employees who had like him come to work for a while as laborers, those there the people who overran the stonemason’s yard, a genuine Zone established in the heart of the city when a cathedral was being built, which generally lasted more than a century, with an influx of the mad, the sick, the illuminated, the devout, of preaching monks, criminals, drunkards, bourgeois, nobles surrounding the yard night and day because it is always entertaining to watch others work…”
Sante continues, “random members of this mob would be chosen by the stone carvers to pose for one of the myriad statues that crowd the portals and the facade;” and quoting Cendrars, “all those carved stones are portraits of people who had names (only those of the donors have endured), all those statues were carved on the spot, in real time, without cheating or faking, in the midst of life, with their attitudes, gestures, clothing, and accessories preserved…”
I’m not a mason or a glazier, not engaged (as far as I know) in any grand multigenerational project, but for thirty years now, whenever I’ve felt hopeless I calm myself by picturing the stone faces along the west facade, a reminder that my life is brief and ordinary and that it matters greatly.
I guess the animals got impatient, because the omens got weirder.
Last week I was walking to the coffee shop where we hold our monthly PTA board meetings when I saw a crow and a lizard standing together, both staring intently at me, two heads cocked in opposite directions. The crow was large and glossy black, standing perfectly erect. The lizard was both larger and greener than the ones I usually see scurrying all over Los Angeles. (I looked it up later on the helpful website Commonly Encountered California Lizards and I believe it was a Woodland Alligator lizard.)
I stood for a long time watching the pair on the sidewalk, certain that either the crow would eat the lizard or the lizard would run away. In fact, seemingly unconcerned with one another, both animals continued to stare fixedly at me. Long minutes passed. I wondered if the lizard was dead. I crouched down close enough to observe the lizard’s breathing and neither the lizard nor the crow moved away from me.
Now this, I thought, definitely means something, and I intended to do a little digging into ancient augury, but after three hours of parliamentary procedure, I’d already forgotten.
Then last night at 3 am I awoke to a coyote shrieking on my front lawn. He was huge and the corner street light caught his fur so it looked like he was standing in a halo of silver light. Or perhaps God or Fate or the purposeful Universe was shining a spotlight on this, its loudest messenger yet. The sound of the coyote rang through the house. I went back to bed and lay awake in the dark as it continued, a combination of barks and bays and a sort of spiteful, strangled howl. I could occasionally pick out another animal’s reply, a second coyote or a neighbor’s dog.
“Check if the cat is okay,” Zac mumbled in his sleep, and even though I knew the cat was inside, and the dog, too, I got up to check. I couldn’t get my robe without waking the baby so I wrapped myself in a bath towel and went out onto the front porch. Just then a neighbor came walking up the street, waving a flashlight at the coyote, trying to run it off. We greeted one another, he graciously ignoring the towel. A third neighbor joined us; the whole block was waking up.
“I think he’s barking at something else,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” said the man with the flashlight. “There’s a really big raccoon standing in your driveway next to your van.” He pointed with his flashlight beam at the biggest raccoon I had ever seen, hissing and spitting by my garage door.
At last the flashlight annoyed the coyote enough that he loped away across the street, casting one more long look back over his shoulder, right at me..
I went to Notre Dame for the first time in 2002. By then I had already spent years reading and thinking and writing about Notre Dame as a medieval studies major myself. It was still more wonderful than I imagined, the most wonderful place I had ever been. The package tourists and bored French high school kids and the selfies and the hawkers belong there as much as the art historians and the nuns on vacation from le Midi. Notre Dame absorbs everything that enters, light and sound and purpose, and when I was there I imagined my life sliding painlessly back into the mass of accumulated time like a drop of water into the ocean.
I visited Notre Dame again last year when Zac and I spent a week in Paris when I was pregnant with Margaret. I went to a small chapel near the entrance to light a candle for Margaret and my other children and stopped before a carving of the pregnant Virgin Mary with her cousin Elizabeth. (In some traditions, Elizabeth is also pregnant with John the Baptist, though her voluminous robes and hunched posture make it hard to tell if that’s intended here.) The two women are so vibrant, so wondrously alive, so here. Elizabeth is reaching out, placing her hand on Mary’s breast above her swollen belly, with the facial expression of a doting busybody. She looks ready to remind her cousin about taking prenatals.
To the question “why do medieval paintings look like that?” the medievalist’s stock reply is that medieval art was meant to function allegorically. The infant Jesus looks like a wizened old man because he is intended to prefigure the adult Jesus, not because medieval painters didn’t know how to paint babies. The point of art wasn’t to realistically depict the material world, but to reveal the the truth beyond it. This explanation has never once been satisfying to anyone but it’s the best we have.
When I heard about the fire, all I could picture was fondly overbearing Elizabeth, her slim, strong fingers, and slightly exasperated Mary looking like she’s trying not to laugh. I thought about snakes and crows and lizards, the heft of their lives, their private existences slipped from interpretation. I didn’t want to save western civilization, I just hoped those two women were okay.
This morning I saw a lone painted lady flitting through the Target parking lot on Victory Boulevard, impervious to the light misty rain and the harried churn of minivans, one last visitor from somewhere else who was still very much here.