Review: Fathers and Demons; Glimpses of the Future, by Lorinda J. Taylor: Telling tales of fathers, sons, demons and deities

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©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart     1127 words

Lorinda J. Taylor, the talented author of several engaging and imaginative works of literary science fiction, does an excellent job of telling her potential readers what to expect from her latest independently published novel, Fathers and Demons; Glimpses of the Future.

In the author notes section of her 116,000 word tome, Taylor makes it clear that her newest work is no ordinary novel.

Writes Taylor, “[Fathers and Demons] is not exactly a novel, since it starts and stops in medias res with only enough explanation of what has gone before to make it comprehensible.”

This reader found in Fathers and Demons (F & D) a mix of brilliance and beauty interspersed with passages of momentum-squelching exposition. Indeed, readers who favor a more traditional narrative would be wise to download the vendor’s sample for an initial perusal. That is because F & D is actually a prequel to the novel that Taylor eventually intends to release—The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, the story of the first interstellar mission to discover extraterrestrials. That story, several times referenced with enthusiastic fanfare in F & D, is only weeks from launch when the reader commences Fathers and Demons.

But before allowing her readers to embark on a light-speed trip to the stars, Taylor apparently believes it necessary to prime them for the journey. Hence F & D’s perambulatory (de)tour, one of the purposes of which (the author tells us in her introductory notes) is to depict “the history and state of Earth’s future civilization…” as well as “the future history of religion in general,” including “recounting what had become of certain remnant elements of society…”—specifically, the Jews.

Armed with this agenda, Taylor commences F & D with an elaborately staged Jewish wedding. The year is 2768, the locale of the nuptials, one of the few remaining religious enclaves still in existence in her predominantly secular-humanistic future world order.

Employing exhaustively researched detail, Taylor introduces a host of wedding guests, Jewish and secular, several of whom are slated to crew the impending mission to the stars. These include the mission’s super inquisitive (some might say annoyingly so) Captain Robbin Nikalishin and co-crew member, Com Officer Avi Oman (the groom), as well as Avi’s bride, Mercedes Tulu, a member of the mission’s ground command. The groom’s hospitable parents, Chaim and Naomi Oman, the amiable Rabbi Ely Kohn, and the Jewish enclave’s irascible Chief Rabbi, Ben-Ari, are also on hand—ostensibly to play an important role in establishing F & D’s thematics.

Readers apt to tire from prolonged exposure to dialogue are forewarned that Taylor’s account of the matrimonial gathering encompasses 10 chatty chapters and some 70,000 (count ‘em!) words. This section of F & D, arguably too long by half, is marked (or marred?) by a crowded cast of guests and their hosts who sit and talk, and eat and talk, and drink and talk their way through a series of stories personal and epic—e.g., a page-hungry history of the Jewish people and their nameless G-d (Who must be referenced by the epithet, HaShem) and the tale of Rabbi Ben-Ari’s domestic tragedies, including the untimely death of his only son.

In short order, Taylor—who admits to being a teacher at heart—uses these chapters to instruct the reader. More specifically, the author’s penchant for exposition and second-hand-after-the-fact storytelling (as opposed to real-time story showing) often robs her tales—and by extension, the characters and populaces to whom they belong—of their emotional and dramatic impact.

In her introductory notes Taylor tells us (there’s that word again) that the first 10 chapters play a key role in her novel—namely, to introduce “The theme of fatherhood and the connections between fathers and gods … the mesh that will bind the book together”.

Doubtless, that was Taylor’s intent; even so, F & D’s initial chapters do not pique a particular interest in thematics so much as inspire an almost irresistible urge to scan ahead. Only the fact that Taylor can actually write—and that with occasional bursts of disarming eloquence—kept this reader anchored on the page.

Fortunately, chapters 11 through 14 afford a much-welcomed respite from the novel’s loquacious first section—not that there isn’t a fair amount of dialogue in these chapters too. The difference is that the story of Ian Glencrosse—Chief Engineer for the upcoming interstellar mission, and a man wrestling with his own demons—unfolds in real time. Nothing second-hand about it.

Burdened by a prolonged estrangement from his parents and plagued by (delusional?) forebodings of a mysterious, malevolent interstellar God intent on the destruction of the upcoming mission, Glencrosse undertakes a pre-launch excursion to make a final peace with his progenitors. The end result of this journey is Glencrosse’s decision to make, when the moment presents, the ultimate sacrifice to his mysterious Star God. The fact that Taylor makes us wait for her next novel to learn if Glencrosse actually places himself on the sacrificial altar is, for this reader, more than a little frustrating. Even so, the chapters devoted to Glencrosse showcase Taylor at her best.

A master of dialogue (when she doesn’t’ let it eat up reams of page space), Taylor ensures that Glencrosse’s interactions with his parents crackle with real emotion and nuanced, character-revealing details. In addition, the author’s prose is sometimes given permission to soar so that the reader begins to understand what makes Taylor a writer worth staying with—even when nothing much but talk is happening on the page.

F & D’s final two chapters feature a foray into epistolary form—a detour that provides much-needed closure, as well as a strong dose of humanity, to the story of Rabbi Ben-Ari (who in the novel’s first section condescended, often quite rudely, to the wedding guests—particularly the goyim).

These final chapters also provide additional insights into the character and leadership qualities of Captain Robbin Nikalishin, a man given in the novel’s first 10 chapters to frequent aw-shucks exclamations and expletives the likes of Holy cry! and Bloody Hell! Here we finally get a glimpse of the commanding eloquence and empathy that (Taylor keeps telling us) has made Nikalishin a global hero.

In conclusion, F & D provides ample evidence of Taylor’s authorial gifts and potential, as well as an occasional appetizer for her next offering, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars. Hopefully she won’t keep us waiting long.

*****

Other works by Lorinda J. Taylor:

The Termite Queen: Volume One: The Speaking of the Dead

The Termite Queen: Volume Two: The Wound That Has No Healing

 

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Letter to the Editors of my Hometown Newspaper

©2015 by Jack Andrew Urquhart     425 words
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Editors:

There is little chance the editors will publish this letter; nevertheless, I write one last time to express my dismay at the total absence of balance and objectivity on the Apopka Chief’s opinion pages courtesy of columnists Richard Corbeil and Patti Bankson. To be clear, the Constitution guarantees these two the freedom to express their opinions, likewise, the editors’ right to publish them. However, by limiting political commentary to a single ultra conservative perspective, the Chief’s editors subscribe to one of the worst trends (in my opinion) in the American news media’s coverage of politics. I refer to “advocacy journalism” and the practice of ‘singing to the choir’—i.e., featuring only political commentary that will feed or reinforce a largely sympathetic audience’s preconceived biases, prejudices, and hatreds. It is a practice that demonizes—and thus, alienates—anyone harboring a different perspective, and that circumvents or stifles critical thinking and constructive compromise.

Corbeil and Bankson are masterful choirmasters in this regard. Week after week they cherry pick “evidence” religiously stripped of context, nuance, and occasionally even accuracy in orchestrating their mean-spirited anti-Obama, anti-Islamic, anti-anything non-white-Tea-Party-Republican-Judeo/Christian-and/or-heterosexual rants.

Please understand, I appreciate and seek out multiple points of view—including those that swing wildly from my own—in the various publications that I follow. How else but by stepping outside one’s own echo chamber and considering the various sides of an issue can one hope to make informed judgments? Unfortunately, the Apopka Chief’s advocacy of an endless one-note racket (conducted always with sanctimonious Christian piety by Corbeil and Bankson) on its opinion pages bears no likeness to balanced, independent journalism.

The last straw for this reader has been columnist Corbeil’s repeated advocacy of a U.S. -waged nuclear war in the Middle East (his preferred solution to the scourge of ISIS) and his cavalier dismissal of the inevitable hundreds of thousands in collateral-damage deaths that would follow. Apparently Corbeil’s belief in the infallibility of “American Exceptionalism” (a phrase coined, incidentally, by Joseph Stalin and promulgated these days by political absurdities the likes of Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal) is so extreme that he can easily justify those casualties. After all, most of the civilian victims would be Muslim, so no big deal!

Such jingoistic noise as this is unconscionable—so much so that I find I can no longer lend an ear to it, much less my support to the paper that publishes it to the near exclusion of any counter-balancing argument.

Please cancel my subscription to the Apopka Chief.
_____

Author’s Note: While I do not usually air my political sympathies on this blog quite so blatantly as in this letter, my hometown newspaper’s egregious political bias has put me in a rare state—so much so that I couldn’t resist posting this early version of the letter I sent to the paper’s editors. A shortened version of the letter was published in the Apopka Chief (print edition) April 3, 2015.

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A Birthday Remembrance for my Son

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart

Dillon collage 2

700 words

Today is my son’s birthday.

Dillon Tyler Urquhart was born March 8, 1979, in Boulder, Colorado. Had he lived, he would’ve been 36 years old—more than old enough to be a father himself. Instead, his short life was marked by a series of hopeful embarkations—jobs, relationships, educational opportunities—that too frequently ended in a crash and burn.

Many years ago, one of my son’s early therapists ventured that Dillon was a cautious, easily frustrated child, and that he often seemed averse to new things—as if his timing was a bit off.

Her observations had basis in fact. From Jump Street, Dill was pissed-off and running late.

Due to make his world debut on March 7th, he made us wait—just as he often did in later years—putting his mother through some 14+ hours of labor before he came yowling into the world. These would become patterns during his short time on earth—the reticence and push back, the periodic meltdowns.

His mother, my ex-wife, who is something of a Mystagogue and a woman of sometimes unsettling intuitive powers, believes that from the moment of his birth, Dill embarked upon a lifelong protest march.

“He was a discontented old soul,” my ex-wife claims to this day.

Her ‘heightened sense’ is that Dillon must’ve been ready to move on to a higher ‘spiritual plane’ when, much to his dismay, another tiresome human incarnation presented itself—which is why, she ‘reasons’, Dillon came into the world fists flailing and shrieking like a monk in an earthquake[1]. It is also, she concludes, the reason he followed such a difficult life path—“because he never really wanted to be here!”

A confirmed agnostic, I do not know what to make of my Ex’s ‘New Agey’ take on the life and times of our first-born. What I do know is that Dill could be a colossal pain. Sometimes, he was just plain gross, or fastidious, or irascible, or delightful, or selfish, or surprisingly generous. Other times, he was a loving son, an affectionate, caring brother to his younger sister, kind and attentive to his friends. Which is by way of saying that he was a human being, and thus, a walking, talking, living, breathing ball of contradictions—sometimes this, sometimes that.

The fact of his mental illness—bi-polarity diagnosed in his early twenties, the onset of schizophrenia in his early thirties—contributed to the difficult path that Dillon trod and to the many burned bridges in his wake.

But, so what! We loved him. And that, dearly—if often imperfectly.

He died in Seattle of a drug overdose on August 2, 2013—hopefully moving (finally!) on to that higher spiritual plane his mother envisioned. She was at his bedside. As was his sister.  So was I.

My memories of that long and exhausting vigil are sketchy, but I recall that we laughed as much as we cried, all the old family stories in those last hours returning to demand retelling.

Like Dill’s well-deserved title as the undisputed Flatulence King of the universe; like all the times he took pride in demonstrating that indecorous birth right—usually in the most embarrassing and/or unpleasant contexts: restaurants, closed automobiles, at the dinner table. His motives, aside from causing us distress, were always a mystery to me. Likewise, I have no explanation other than crushing exhaustion and grief for our behavior in the ICU that last day—my ex-wife and I, and our unseemly laughter. Only that we couldn’t help ourselves,  couldn’t hold back; because even there, even in his death throes, the kid was still at it—still exercising his tooty ‘royal’ prerogatives. So we laughed. Laughed till we cried. Because it was either that or fall to pieces.

I confess that even now, these 18 months on, not much has changed; the memories still seem funny—funny enough to bring on tears.

All normal, I expect.

But we go on. We keep living and recollecting.

Which is why I write today: to breathe some life back into memory. Dillon’s memory.

Happy Birthday wishes, Dear Son.

And for us, your family and friends, still residing on this earthly ‘plane’—many happy remembrances of the day.

*****

[1] From Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)

 

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Social Media: Breaking up is hard to do

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart

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Last week I deactivated my Facebook™ account; today I did the same at Twitter™, LinkedIn™, and Google+™.  These were decisions motivated in part by a growing sense of personal dis-ease with social media; more specifically, a feeling that my participation in these forums was not fostering a sense of well-being—not in me, nor in (some of) those with whom I have had interaction.

The fact is, I had been thinking about leaving social media for several months but held on because those platforms have become so much a part of my life. What, I wondered, would fill the empty spaces left by disconnection from Facebook and Twitter? What withdrawals might I suffer in depriving myself the chance to bray my liberal political sympathies in a status update, in forgoing a pithy tweet intended to pin the donkey’s tail on some ass-hole politician. Worst of all, how would I—an introvert by nature—cope with cyber loneliness in addition to the conventional real world variety?

So I demurred. As the song goes, breaking up is hard to do.

And then a few days ago, something happened. I received notice—via e-mail, of course—that a friendship of some thirty years duration was officially kaput.

In truth, the relationship in question had been fading for some time. Geographical separation, changing tastes and interests, poor communication—social media had become our only point of contact—had gradually weakened our bond. In fact, as my former friend’s e-mail made clear, our interactions on Facebook had, at least from her point of view, been the last straw.

“Your lack of compassion,” she wrote, was the fatal flaw in our relationship—a conclusion that had been crystalized for her in a single comment that I posted on her Facebook page. Two or three sentences, it was—about something that happened on the Academy Awards™ broadcast, of all things. But it was cause enough for her to “unfriend” me in the cyber and real worlds.

In fairness, her e-mail cited several other corroborating examples of hurtful behavior, not all of them perpetuated online; incidents she’d never been brave enough to confront me about.

I was stunned in reading her account, as I do not think of myself as a grossly insensitive person. Nevertheless, I could see the path my former friend had followed in arriving at her decision. From her perspective, I had become a fervid cynic—a man incapable of empathy. And the persona I presented on social media had exacerbated that perception.

“I don’t really want to be friends with you. I don’t know who you are anymore,” she wrote.

Yes, well, neither do I sometimes—know who I am, that is.

Welcome to another of life’s transitional periods.

Speaking of which, a New York Times op-ed addressing that very subject—transitions and human communication—captured my attention yesterday. “Leaving and Cleaving,” penned by conservative columnist David Brooks, triggered my own little moment of “crystallized” epiphany. That is because Brooks had identified much of what most troubles me about communications via social media—including my own.

Granted, Brooks’s op-ed does not specifically address the communicative effects of social media. Nevertheless, his observations about how people who were once intimate handle the transitional spaces that open between them struck me as apropos of what had happened to my former friend and I; ditto how my feelings about social media, once so enthusiastic, had soured over time.

Brooks writes that Relationships are often defined by the frequency and intensity of communication between two people,” and when a transition (geographic separation, divorce, traumatic loss, for example) interrupts that flow, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and estrangement can follow. He further posits that when such relationships falter, it is, at least in part, because, “Communication that was once honest and life-enhancing has become perverted … by resentment, neediness or narcissism.”

That last statement set bells to ringing.

My former friend and I have not lived closer than a thousand miles of each other in over twenty-five years. In that time, our telephone and e-mail correspondence, once prolific and, I would say, intense, even life-enhancing, gradually ebbed. There were reasons for this; for example, a mild case of something akin to aphasia on my part has, over time, made telephone conversation awkward. Additionally, both my ex-friend and I have experienced life-changing personal loss, the traumatic depths of which, I suspect, could never have been adequately communicated online.

Empathy, it seems, is not easily digitized.

Not so misunderstanding, trivia, insensitivity, self-righteousness, rudeness, smugness, narcissism, and even cruelty—each of which, in an environment of diluted or neutralized inhibitions, can be conveyed in a few clicks and keystrokes. While inhabiting my online persona, I have been guilty of demonstrating many, but I hope not all, of these behaviors. And yet, I believe it is fair to say that often I have been in good and plenty company—which is by no means an excuse.

The thing is, what has become clearer to me is that a communication platform reliant almost exclusively on brief, easily misinterpreted, one might even say easily perverted, “status updates” and tweets—on ubiquitous, meaningless ‘likes’; on the braggadocio of re-touched and doctored selfies; on empty endorsements and smug family vignettes; on silly emoticons, and shares, and never-ending re-posts—in such an environment as this, it is way too easy for an Every Man Jack to lose sight of his better … Self.

And with that loss, any sense of well-being.

Therein, I believe, lies the root source of my social media dis-ease. And it is why—not that it will constitute any loss to the world—I choose to absent myself.

At least for a while.

In the meantime, I plan to post at this site occasionally, and I will continue to follow the several bloggers whose work I admire.

Who knows, maybe someday—when we’re both all grown up?—social media and I can be friends again.

Time will tell.

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Coming to Grief, a prose poem by @jackaurquhart

©2015 by Jack A. Urquhart
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They say living with grief
is a marathon;
like a non-stop jaunt,
one keeps running,
keeps jogging
milestone to milestone.
But I don’t agree—
not anymore.

That is what I’d tell you,
if you were still here,
still listening to me.
I’d argue a foot race
is too high and dry
for human sorrow,
say that survival swims
in fluid similes.

I’d tell how swimmingly
a steady stroke turns days
into weeks, into months,
into wearying years.
Show how sometimes,
a dog-tired paddle
is all that’s possible.
Say how loss will do that—

Slow a person’s pace,
the aches, the swelling,
settling into the joints
that hold us together.
I’d speak of other risks, too;
of random rogue waves,
of how easily
we are swamped in sadness.

I’d argue that it’s possible
to drown more than once,
show it’s a whitewash,
how they say the swimmer
comes to grief—
how we sink
but three times
before the end.

I’d offer the truth
is more buoyant than that.
Like flotsam and jetsam
on a sea of tears,
we can bob and dip
for quite a spell—
as much as a lifetime—
‘till comes a dry land.

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An Existential Exercise: Making sense out of getting lost

Copyright 2014 by Jack A. Urquhart

J.P. Sartre et S. de Beauvoir, Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris

J.P. Sartre et S. de Beauvoir, Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris

“Regardless of the staggering dimensions of the world about us … the fact remains that we are absolutely free today if we choose to will our existence in its finiteness, a finiteness which is open on the infinite.” — Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity, 1947
“Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things.”
From Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone De Beauvoir, 1926-1939

*****

Lately I’ve noticed that in the absence of familiar landmarks, I become easily disoriented. Perhaps it’s a side effect of advancing age; certainly my sense of direction and my concentration are not what they used to be.

Years ago when I lived in Colorado, the front range provided a Rocky-Mountain-firm axis for differentiating east from west — those  mountains a beacon every bit as dependable as the North Star. Nowadays I live in Florida where the flatlands offer few compass points quite so obvious; it’s a living situation that seems to have aggravated my diminished sense of direction. Unfortunately, the difficulty follows me wherever I go — even here to our temporary home in Paris.  For example, a simple two-stop trek on the Paris Metro can render me profoundly confused and directionless, with absolutely no notion of North and South, East and West.

In other words, I get lost.

Easily.

It happened again recently on an early morning run to and from Le Jardin du Luxembourg along a route I’d taken several times previously.

The “to” part of my jog was easy enough: two kilometers in found me loping alongside the natives in that beautiful parc. I remember feeling a bit proud of my sixty-something self, sure-footed enough to pass a few of the locals on my turn around the gardens. But as they say, pride goeth before the fall, and  not long after embarking on the ‘from’ portion of my run, I was completely confused and adrift, reduced to running concentric circles around the Montparnasse tower, in a cold drizzle no less. It wasn’t until some twenty minutes later, when I stumbled quite by accident into Le Cimetière du Montparnasse (just opening at that hour), that I was able to find my way back to Avenue du Maine and the route home.

As usual, it was inattention — or more specifically, that state of semi-unconsciousness that sometimes accompanies distance running — that sent me off course. And with no recognizable compass points to guide me (I’m sorry, but Montparnasse’s black tower in the middle of a veritable wheel of converging streets looks the same from every angle), I was quickly in trouble.

Later, safely back at our temporary home in the 14 Arr, revitalized after a hot shower, it struck me what an apt metaphor my morning discombobulation was for the challenges we humans face daily in this marathon we’re engaged upon — the one we call ‘life’. It doesn’t take much to throw us off — sometimes seriously off. Lose our concentration for a few moments, take a wrong turn, dart carelessly into traffic, let a friendship slide, or worse, foolishly allow pride, laziness, and/or arrogance to distract us from our physical, moral, ethical compass points and we can find ourselves in big trouble.

In my case, trouble took the form of self-doubt, and the fear that I might not be able to find my way home. And while I kept reminding myself all through that long, wandering, rainy morning that a misstep can sometimes lead to serendipitous good fortune, another part of me remained acutely aware that ‘luck’ is seldom a reliable traveling companion.

So … yet another lesson in the value of paying attention came my way. There will be others, even lessons that don’t end as well — that don’t pack the same metaphoric punch. For finding my bearings in Paris that damp and chilly morning wasn’t quite as simple as happening upon Le Cimetière du Montparnasse. Indeed, anyone who has ever been there — or more accurately, anyone directionally challenged who has ever been there — knows, it can be easy to lose one’s bearings in that metropolis of the illustrious and not so illustrious deceased. In fact, but for another chance encounter, I might still be wandering amongst those tomb stones.

No, it took a particular guidepost to set me back on course. It took a marker familiar from previous visits, one with particular resonance to this journeyman writer, lost-cause Francophile, terminal-case romantic, and firm believer in the notion that human consciousness is the mother of all meaning in an individual life. And when I spotted it there in Le Cimetière Montparnasse that morning — a simple granite memorial (pictured above) to the power of unfettered human intellect — I knew that I’d found my way again.

I knew that even in this crazy, absurd and often seemingly meaningless world, I could make it home.

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Le Mont Saint-Michel: Juxtaposition of the Crass and the Sublime

Copyright 2014 by Jack A. Urquhart

Véronique et Raymond et ... c'est un mirage?

Véronique et Raymond et … c’est un mirage?

October 22, 2014, Normandie, France: I can’t say for certain why I’ve longed to visit Le Mont Saint-Michel since I first saw its photo in a high school text-book decades ago. Probably it has to do with Le Mont’s architecture, its art, and the mind-boggling beauty of its location — all that and the fact that it looks like something out of a fairytale. Maybe I’ve felt driven to make this pilgrimage in order to verify that the place is real? And indeed, from this distance, Le Mont Saint-Michel, crowned by its Romanesque abbey spires, looks more like a mirage, like an impossibly elaborate wedding cake shimmering on the horizon. A feast for the eyes, it beckons to us — Raymond, Véronique, and myself — from a distance of one or two kilometers across bucolic fields of golden-brown unharvested corn.

We’ve stopped for a photo-op at Huisnes-sur-Mer, each of us excited by this first glimpse of Le Mont. And ‘though we’ve been warned to expect an extravaganza of crass commercialism once we set foot on the island (all of the business establishments, we’re told, are controlled by two or three families), from here Le Mont Saint-Michel looks pristine, ageless, uncorrupted by the modern world.

Half an hour later, crowded onto one of the modern shuttle buses that ferry visitors out to the Mont, the mirage begins to falter a bit. But not our excitement, and certainly not the wonder of this place.

A majestic granite mountain covering 247 acres, and soaring to a height of over 300 feet above sea level, Le Mont Saint-Michel has, for centuries, survived the forces of man and nature — forces that over time have eroded and erased its long ago connection to the mainland. It is perhaps ironic, then, that this sanctuary, unvanquished by time and tides — as well as conquering armies until WWII — has in just the last three-quarters of a century surrendered to a seemingly invincible force: capitalism à la française.

Shops, shops, and still more shops.

Shops, shops, and still more shops.

Everything we’ve been told about the island’s tourist-trap commercial center is true. As soon as we enter Le Mont via the Tour de Roi, we find ourselves in tchotchke land central. Want an “I Love NYC” tee-shirt? You can find it here. How about a Tour Eiffel key chain or a made-in-China tote bag bearing a representation of heaven’s head herald, the Archangel Michael, who early in the eighth century supposedly ordered a bishop to erect an oratory on the Mont. Name your souvenir and the local merchants will probably have it in stock.

And so what.

After all it’s not the shops (‘though doubtless they contribute to the maintenance of this wonder in rock and stone) that draw we three here. Hardly that (‘though I succumb to the commercial siren song long enough to purchase a red baseball cap emblazoned with a MS-M logo). Rather, it’s the abbey crowning this place that inspires us up and up and away from the clamorous tourist center at Le Mont’s lower levels. It’s the abbey that draws us ever higher via a warren of cobbled streets, that has us stumbling up countless steps made for tiny feet — apparently none of the early monks had clodhoppers like mine — until finally the Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel towers immediately above us.

A fast-moving queue, and 27 € later (the entrance fee for three adults) and we are inside the Abbaye and on our self-guided way.

For the next two hours we wander through countless chambers, their emptiness exaggerated by the heavy Gothic granite architecture. Near the summit, the church — which like much of Le Mont, is undergoing restoration — features soaring vaults and stained glass and hundreds of tourists (like us). Nearby, the improbability of lush cloistered gardens atop 250 feet or so of solid rock is a surprise. But I’ll confess that the biggest eye opener of the tour for me is waiting in the Abbaye’s Romanesque bowels. There, a hundred feet or so above foundation level, we encounter an enormous tread wheel, like a giant hamster toy; only this is no vehicle of amusement. Rather, I learn that monks once trod the wheel five and six at a time like work horses set to the task of raising two-ton granite building blocks from the landing platform far below. And though the monk’s accomplishments at the great wheel are an astonishing feat, their efforts on the tread wheel lose a bit of thunder once one considers that those two-ton building blocks made it to Le Mont from across a kilometer of tidal mudflats in the absence of a causeway — brought there by brute force and stubborn, undaunted human will.

The great tread wheel

The great tread wheel

Such is the power of an Archangel’s commandment, some might say — that men can be driven, inspired to undertake and carry out such arduous tasks; such is the power of man’s faith in the infallibility of ‘God’s will,’ one often hears.

But for this agnostic, the undeniable existence of Le Mont Saint-Michel is enough to renew and revive, at least temporarily, my faith — my faith in mankind, that is; my faith in our addiction and devotion to beauty and its creation; to beauty that lasts, and that lifts and inspires the spirit. I can’t help but believe that this yearning, this drive to experience exaltation right here on earth in architecture, in art, in storytelling — this very human desire to achieve transcendence by creating magnificence in the midst of so much man-made imperfection and suffering — can be as powerful, as meaningful, and as comforting as any faith in the godliness of angelic hosts in a heaven on high.

So it seems I’ve crossed decades and continents and oceans to arrive again at this conclusion, for it certainly isn’t a new one; and to set foot at last on this tacky, touristy, beautiful, magical, contradictory island. But what else, save a juxtaposition of the crass and the sublime, should one expect to find in such a very real human-inhabited place?

 

 

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