Paris, Always With Me

In the late morning yesterday, I was idly hopping between tab and tab on my laptop when I opened Twitter and saw the photograph of a plume of smoke engulfing Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral. It took me a moment to process what I was seeing with my own eyes, and when I did I was horrorstruck.

I lived in Paris for six months, as January of 2011 turned into spring. I was lucky enough to take a classroom-and-walking-tours course on the history of Paris as told by her monuments. I may have been stressed out while I was there, but I came slowly (grudgingly?) to really love the city. And you cannot love Paris without also loving Notre-Dame.

Photo from May of 2011, from the Left Bank, near Shakespeare & Co.

Photo from May of 2011, from the Left Bank, near Shakespeare & Co.

“Our Lady,” that is to say, the Blessed Virgin Mary, watches over the city from the island. Sainte-Chappelle, her neighbor, is a fantasy in stained glass. Sainte-Chappelle was built by kings and for kings. But Notre-Dame, to this day, is the people’s church. The fire yesterday is doubtless a terrible blow to the French people, but the stone towers are still standing; with quick action and careful work, Notre-Dame will be repaired.

Nevertheless, this is a loss. Roman-Catholic Parisians in particular will need to mourn even on Easter Sunday, the holiest and most joyous day of the calendar. It is necessary to speak grief before healing can really begin— only the language differs from person to person.

And tangential to that…

I’ve been working on a poem about loss, grieving, and healing. It’s sort of a translation of the song “Always With Me,” a song by Youmi Kimura which is the end-credits song/coda for Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, Spirited Away.

I say “sort of” a translation, because my words here are not picked to correspond with the Japanese lyrics. I’m not a big fan of the official English translation, sung here by Hayley Westenra. And my only Japanese is “sumimasen.” I find the melody of the song, paired with the ending of Spirited Away, to be beautiful and haunting, and I wanted to do something that would match and complement that bittersweet feeling. When I sat down to scribble something out, I found myself drawing words from other portal fantasies, that is, other works about children venturing through worlds not our own, worlds that are magical and often contain at least a few metaphors about growing up.

To wit, if you’ve read Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making or Susan Cooper’s Seaward, you’ll recognize a few details from those books. And a key line comes from the manga Card Captor Sakura, which isn’t a portal fantasy but I still love it.

And all of that is not to diminish from the original vision and voice that Miyazaki expresses in his own film. This poem-translation, meant to be sung to the melody of “Always With Me,” is a tribute to that.

Chihiro, the heroine of Spirited Away, looking back one last time.

Chihiro, the heroine of Spirited Away, looking back one last time.

The sands have run out now, I must turn away

To working and sleeping and an ordinary day,

The streets all are empty as a page without a pen,

But my eyes are bright,

For I know we’ll meet again.

It seeps into my mind

The world I left behind

My home in its details

Is around me as before,

But it’s me who is different,

Changed from inside out,

I can’t hold to what I knew

Ever since I met you.

Farewell to the lullabies that soothed me before,

The past is behind me, and it’s time to shut the door--

Now the future is waiting, it’s dappled dark and bright;

The path is worth taking,

I’m sure I’ll be alright.

I’ll remember you in summer, I’ll miss you in fall,

In winter I’ll dream you as snow piles on the wall,

When water starts to quicken and flows to the sea,

I’ll open my heart

For you to come back to me.