Our Ladies

Spring has come to the Costa Blanca. Temperatures are rising, shops shuttered for the off season are reopening, and many lobster-colored Germans are letting way too much hang out on our beaches. So far, the best thing Spring has brought Mark and me is our first visitor since we moved here. Her name is Joyce Lowe, and the three of us appear in the selfie we took in the main market in Madrid. Some of you have probably already seen this photo on Facebook.

Joyce and I met when she was my student at Saint Mary’s University School of Law. I remember that her paper in an Environmental Litigation seminar I taught was about whether “existence value” is a compensible component of environmental damage. In other words, people are happy to know that the Grand Canyon is out there being spectacular, even if they never travel west of the Mississippi. That’s existence value. Assume that some jerk comes along and causes enough environmental harm so that the Grand Canyon no longer exists. Can the government  sue the jerk for damages because the Grand Canyon’s existence value is gone? It’s an interesting question.

Anyway, that was a while ago, but happily but Joyce and I have remained friends via visits, emails, and Facebook. She practices law now in San Angelo, so I don’t see her much, but Mark and I were delighted when she asked whether she’d be welcome in Spain in April. Of course the answer was yes!

We met her at the airport in Madrid, which we’ve visited a couple of times but which was new to Joyce. Having proceeded to our standard new-to-the-city stop, the hop on/hop off bus, we bundled ourselves into our parkas and made the circuit of the city. Over the next two days Joyce was a trooper as she dealt with jet lag while seeing El Puerto del Sol, Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral, and various other attractions. My favorite two were the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, where Picasso’s stunning Guernica seems as relevant as it was in 1937, and the Palacio Nacional.

Actually, the visit to the Palace could have been a bust, as the building was closed so that the King could receive a visitor. (I’m guessing he did not put out the towels for his guest, as I had done for Joyce.) More than compensating for our inability to enter the Palace was the parade that took place to usher the dignitary in to see the King. Guards in shiny breastplates and wearing red coats and white-plumed hats marched about, and two gorgeous red and gilt coaches that would have made Cinderella proud wheeled into the courtyard. Only one carriage had a footman, but what attendants there were and both drivers had on splendid red and gold livery and – get this! – powdered wigs. We gawked and pointed and took zillions of pictures. My favorite picture is of the Captain of the Horse Guard astride his stallion and talking on his cell phone. Undoubtedly his wife was calling to remind him to pick up a NICE bottle of wine on the way home, because his brother Enrique and his snooty wife were coming to dinner and God only knows if the wine wasn’t good Enrique’s wife would say something to him, and he’d repeat it like a parrot without a brain to his mother, who would say something nasty next Sunday dinner at her house where, by the way, SHE served crummy wine.

After a couple of days in Madrid, we took the train back home. We spent the next couple of days exploring Torrevieja, including walking on the beach, visiting the local salt works, and seeing the lovely Palm Sunday procession. Cartagena also was graced by our presence; seeing the 2,000 year-old Roman amphitheater is always a treat, especially if you sing “The Eyes of Texas” on the stage to a variety of bewildered tourists. We also visited the Moorish/medieval castle and took in an exhibit about Queen Isabella. I have to admit, I’m a big fan of her clothes but not so much of her politics. Expelling the Jews and the Moriscos – Muslims who had converted to Catholicism after the Reconquista of Spain but whose religious allegiances were always suspect – smacks of a purity cult and not the faith I understand Jesus to have preached. Wait, there’s that pesky relevance thing again!

We spent our last day in Elche, a city slightly north of here, visiting yet another fortress and wandering among palm groves that are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. After lots of hugs, Joyce boarded her train to Barcelona at the station in Alicante. And we came back to our routines, which are happy and peaceful. As I write this post, Mark and I are sitting on our balcony, watching the sunset and the sea and drinking tinto verano, a mixture of red wine and lemonade that you buy in two-liter bottles in the soft drink section of the grocery store.

But go back to last night, when I was goofing around on Facebook and saw the horrific news that Notre Dame was on fire. I know that Black churches burn and synagogues burn and mosques burn, but just for now I’m focused on Notre Dame. We’ve visited this phenomenal building twice, once as a couple and once with our daughters. Each time, I’ve experienced a sense of rightness in that building that’s intense and powerful and impossible to explain. It’s like my DNA wants me to be there; I feel settled and at home. Maybe it’s my French blood calling to me. According to family lore and some fairly suspect genealogical research, my mother’s ancestor, John of Crécy, joined William in 1066 to see what trouble he could make in England and, I suspect, to avoid his creditors. You know the drill – 1066, Hastings, arrow through eye=dead English king. John of Crécy morphs into Englishman John Cressey, and Cressey eventually morphs into Crissey, my mother’s maiden name.

So who knows? Maybe Notre Dame is in my DNA. Maybe my ancestors worked on the cathedral. They were undoubtedly not the upscale skilled artisans carving the magnificent stonework or designing the ingenious flying buttresses, but after much hard work they could have been promoted to Assistant Drudge and allowed to carry the rubble to dump into a pile. Or maybe they worshipped there, standing inside the cold stone walls and gaping in stupefaction at their magnificent surroundings. I feel it, too, ancestors. You know how Catholics talk about veneration? I’m a little fuzzy on what they venerate as well as what you actually do when you venerate something. But I do know that staring at the front Rose Window is probably as close to veneration as I’m ever going to get.

And all of a sudden we’re watching this burn in real time on my iPad.

Damn it, I kept thinking, Notre Dame can’t burn! I need it to exist, to know that it’s there. It’s like you need to know your family and friends are there, even when you don’t see them for long stretches. You need to know that the Mona Lisa still smiles and the mother in Guernica still mourns her dead baby. You need to know that Beethoven’s Fifth still starts with “Da da da DA” and that the bluebonnets cover the fields of Central Texas and then give way to the hot weather Mexican Hats. I need these things, and I’m grateful for them. Maybe existence value is a way of saying that we all need something, someone, to be grateful for.

Today I’m grateful that some of Notre Dame remains, including my beloved Rose Window. Rebuilding is promised while mourning for the terrible losses continues. Today we are Tennyson’s Ulysses, contemplating another voyage in his older years and grateful for what he has left of his body and his dreams: “Though much is taken, much abides.”

So today, friends, be aware: I’m grateful for you. You have value for me purely because you exist. And because I couldn’t begin to name all of you in my thanksgiving, I’ll let our ladies – Joyce and Notre Dame – stand in for all of you. I’m more grateful for those two than I can say. So, as they say in church, thanks be to God. Amen.



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