©Meredith Pike-Baky 2016

©Meredith Pike-Baky 2016

Paris, November 15, 2015

Dark clouds have shrouded the last two days. There’s been a ten-degree temperature drop and worsening updates of horrifying events. For the moment, all is calm. Though it seemed to take forever for the sun to appear this morning, it finally did and the dreary mantle gave way to blue sky and bright sun. I’m looking for meaning in this. Are we to be optimistic? Is the terror attack over? Will the hundreds of injured young people and millions of Parisians, French and international sympathizers recover to the point of making this tragedy change the way we relate to each other, breaking down barriers of religion, wealth, power, difference? Will we be able to move forward and build a world that works for all of us? Each of us? Can we be optimistic?

Yesterday morning I woke up to tragic news. I’d arrived the night before from Parc de la Villette in northern Paris where I’d been attending an Airbnb conference and staying with French friends and former guests. With the excitement of the conference and the stimulation of bubbly Paris energy, I had not been able to sleep well, so I decided to move to a more familiar corner of the city and stay at an old friend’s flat. I hopped on a bus with my large suitcase and sat like a commuter on the hour-long trip from one end of the city to the other. But I was really a tourist. I caught glimpses of everything Paris is known for on a typical Friday night: quaint and quirky neighborhoods, shoppers hustling about with their baguettes and flowers, school kids marching home in chatty clusters, the Seine starting to sparkle in the early evening, and Notre Dame rising into view as we crossed the river, so stately and massive. It was a bountiful and beautiful ride on an ordinary city bus. But it turned eery in light of what happened several hours later.

As dawn broke the next day I learned details of the night before, each one more grim than the previous. My friend Jacqueline, whose flat I’d just left, called from across town and burst into tears. She’d had a terrifying night searching for her daughter who’d been attending the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” at a theater near Bataclan where the terrorists attacked. Learning of the attack, she and her husband jumped in their car and navigated through a “war zone” to reach Milene. Younger brother Samuel directed Jacqueline and Vincent from home in phonecalls every five minutes. Google maps assisted by alerting them to traffic barricades. Through a series of clever and timely communiques with the theater, Milene was reunited with her parents, who, with as many friends as could fit in the car, were swept away to safety. The girls reported that earlier when theater officials stopped the film and explained what had occurred nearby, audience members laughed, thinking it was part of the show. When they were finally convinced that it wasn’t in the script, pandemonium ensued. Reliving the drama, Jacqueline broke down.

Another friend, an American living near the Eiffel Tower, called and confessed that maybe she and her young family would hasten their move to a suburb. “For a garden for our baby,” she justified. We both knew there was more to her hasty change of plans. My Egyptian sister-in-law called from thirty minutes away to insist I come stay with her. My Arabic is increasingly sketchy and her English and French nearly nonexistent, so my attempts to explain that no, I wouldn’t be coming to stay with her left me feeling frustrated, weary, guilty.

My children finally reached me after trying all night to get in touch. To calm themselves in the face of frantic worry about my safety and my silence, they reasoned that it was unlikely I’d be (a) at a soccer match or (b) at a rock concert. Their good thinking reassured the rest of the family. I felt less reassured. The hours were uneasy and so very sad.

I have stayed inside, except for two short shopping trips to buy groceries. The streets were deserted in the morning, but people have been out in the afternoon, stocking up on bread and other staples. Jacqueline told me earlier, “People will have to go out later. Ah yes! We have to eat!” I felt that as long as I avoided large public spaces as the government has advised, I’d be safe going out too.

People keep asking me, “Do you feel afraid? Are you scared? How are you feeling?” Mostly I feel numb, vulnerable, mournful. But I don’t feel fear. At times of powerlessness like this, I’ve learned to keep my wits about me and disengage. Is it denial? Cowardice? Similar crises I’ve lived through, where others’ courage and lucidity enabled them to be of assistance, flash through my memory like a high-speed slideshow: an accident in Cairo, an earthquake in San Francisco, grenade explosions in Kigali, coup attempts in Brazzaville. The edgy tentative tenor of these hours is familiar. Composure is key.

There’s another reason I’ve been restrained. Three months ago I lost my brother. He had an attack of acute pancreatitis, so severe that it shut down his kidneys and in turn affected his heart. Though nurses were optimistic and the nephrologist kept referring to kidney “resilience”, my brother didn’t recover. This loss has been shattering. He was an anchor for me, a force of support and stability and love. And he was that for everyone, consistent in his kindness and unrelenting in his positive outlook and energy. I ache in his absence.

The disbelief, denial, and dread that I experienced firsthand and secondhand in Paris have been sickeningly familiar. Trying to stay calm, detached even, has helped me continue. I grieve for my Paris friends, known and unknown. It is a continued gnawing from inside, a twitchy nervousness that reminds me in intermittent strikes that all is not well.

When will the anguish fade? Is it possible for any of us here and there and around the world to heal from such trauma? When will all of us living in these times be able to move ahead?

Naomi Shihab Nye has written about an experience at the Albuquerque airport. At the departure gate, she came to the assistance of a fellow passenger distraught and wailing. The woman had understood that the flight was cancelled. Nye, the granddaughter of a Palestinian, spotted the woman in traditional Palestinian dress and attempted to comfort her, putting an arm around her shoulders, and explaining in simple Arabic that the flight was only delayed. Nye’s touch, her few halting words in a familiar language and the information that the woman would be in Texas for urgent medical treatment rejuvenated her. More passengers approached to encourage her. Immensely grateful and relieved, the woman handed out homemade cookies she had brought along. The airline distributed juice and the group of anxious strangers became genial, trusting acquaintances. It took Nye’s simple and generous gesture of kindness.

My brother was like Nye. He made friends wherever he went. It didn’t matter whether they were old or young, sailors (like he was) or restaurant workers, ferry toll takers, shoppers at the supermarket. He was a friend to everyone, bolstering the embattled and old-fashioned board member, teaching the disengaged adolescent how to shake hands, entertaining one of his clients with stories about his adventurous past.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the Dalai Lama has said, “We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest.”

I want to embody this wisdom, to be more like Naomi Shihab Nye and my brother Ted, ready to lend a comforting arm, clarify confusion in sign language if I’m not lucky enough to speak the language. When we each reach out to others, looking for ways to assist, seeing our own particular needs in the helplessness of strangers, we can move into easy friendships. That, then, is when we can take heart. That’s when we can be optimistic.

Nye writes, “This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.” I will honor my brother’s memory and pay tribute to the victims in Paris and around the world by reaching out to others. There has got to be a way to hold on to optimism. The sun is still shining.

©Meredith Pike-Baky, 2016

Meredith Pike-Baky is writing (mostly sad poems), growing food in her garden and renting rooms in her house. She continues to teach and travel. Her most recent publications include Prompted to Write and Rain, Steam & Speed in collaboration with Gerald Fleming. She attended the BAWP Summer Institute in 1999.

2 Responses to “Wounded City by Meredith Pike-Baky”

  1. eduk8te Says:

    This is so beautiful, Meredith. Thanks for passing along the need for persistent optimism. I’m sorry about the loss of your brother.

  2. Meris Says:

    Meredith, your writing touches my soul. This piece is beautifully written. It exposes the human vulnerability. You don’t have to work at giving. You are one of the most generous and compassionate person I know…just like your brother Ted. I have always admired you both for so many reasons. Thanks for sharing your piece.

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