As I write this, it is about 14 hours since I first heard what was happening in Paris last night. Like most monumental events, there's a distinct before and after. Before: I was binge-watching Aziz Ansari's new Netflix show "Master of None" and lackadaisically shopping online. After: I am so very grateful that my family and friends were not in harm's way even as my heart breaks for those not as lucky. After: I am mostly numb, sleepless and drinking too much coffee. I’ll switch to wine by lunch. After: I look at my two blissfully unaware babies and try for normal, smiling at their little jokes, going through the motions of a regular Saturday, albeit one where we stay inside.
It's raining in Paris, kids, so we'll stay indoors. Raining terror and anger and sadness—something so big that no one will likely find the words to explain it, to themselves, much less to their children.
Like many other expats here, I was in Manhattan for 9/11. I was in Paris for Charlie Hebdo. I am in Paris today.
Each time, it feels like this. The streets are empty. There’s a certain remove. Perhaps because we are not designed to understand the senseless and the tragic. Distance protects. Even if all my Parisian friends and family come out of this unscathed, we will know someone or someone’s someone who did not. Who, as I sit here with faltering words, has to identify a body or keep vigil by a hospital bedside. Or is simply gone.
My husband, a former war correspondent and now the head of documentaries at a French network, was up the entire night, buzzing with that journalist thrill of pulling a major story together. “We need to find the stories,” he said as he walked out of the house at 9 a.m.
That’s what we’re left with now. Stories. In the coming days, we’ll see and hear even more of the horrible and the heroic. We’ll mourn the innocents, the ones who were excited to go to a rock concert or were craving a bowl of noodles on a Friday night. We’ll shake our fists at the faceless and the dead who perpetrated this horror. We’ll shake our heads at government and organized religion. We’ll open our social media accounts—our digital hearts—for binary hugs and solace. We’ll mean well. By god, we’ll mean well: #PorteOuverte.
Last January, every person who had ever shared breathing space with me meant well. Are you OK? Stay safe! Thinking of you. So glad you’re fine. (Really? You didn’t care if I was fine when you called me a chink in high school.) With great tragedy comes a great need to feel connected to it, I observed drily to my husband. I am the only person from my podunk suburb to settle in Paris. I’m the tenuous link between a Philly housewife and a world-shaking event. “OMG, my old classmate lives in Paris!” I imagined her clucking over a shitty mixed drink at a sports bar with CNN on the big screen. “Let me FB her!”
My husband sort of knew one of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, I confided to friends that same week. (I am no better, and probably worse, than anyone. At least they’re not trying to capitalize on their degrees of separation from atrocity. They’re not making a pitch list of newspapers and magazines.)
The emails and notifications flew in furiously as my After began. The scale of this attack meant hundreds of pings and likes that, along with the chaotic newsfeeds, kept me up until 4 a.m. Facebook hastily created a safety check and I just barely rolled my eyes before marking myself and my husband as safe. Honestly, it was a relief to see Paris friends and acquaintances also marked safe. She’s fine. He’s fine. Thank you,
Big Brother Facebook.
French flag profile pictures started multiplying, #prayforparis trending and, instead of viewing it with cynicism and criticism (what does a photo or a hashtag do, anyway?), I liked every status and comment.
This time, this third time around the terrible block, I let go of my Befores, the micro-aggressions and historical hurts. I read only the compassion—and my compressed heart ached slightly less for it. Choosing forgiveness, recognizing kindness. This is the only After I can live in.
As we hold our breaths and strain for safety, I hope that compassion is the story we choose to tell. Post-9/11, we New Yorkers cradled ourselves and each other for a weird, wonderful while — until the battle horns sounded and we realized we could ignore civilian casualties as long as they were of a different color and religion. Fourteen years of war and exponential hate later, I sit tight at home with my children, wondering whether the world will embrace humanity or vengeance. And I pray for Paris. I pray for us all.