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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New Post: Road to Le Mont Saint-Michel

Copyright 2014 by Jack A. Urquhart

image October 21, 2014: In the front seat of our rented Peugeot 308, my spouse Raymond and our French friend Véronique, joust and parry verbally (good naturedly, of course!) like an old married couple. Their topics range all over the map: the meaning of French road signs, what constitutes excessive speed from country to country, the nation with the best highway rest areas, not to mention whether or no our British-accented TomTom has accurately plotted “la bonne GPS route” to our latest destination.

We are on the road again, this time to Le Mont Saint-Michel in Normandie. It will be a first visit for us all, and we are eager to set foot on that magnificent ancient rock — home to a monastery since the eighth century — improbably plopped in its namesake baie. A baie, which btw, boasts Europe’s highest and fastest rising tides, often 12 to 14 meters; tides famous for galloping landward at thoroughbred speeds (and woe to anyone foolish enough to have ventured onto the mudflats at the wrong hour). But first we must navigate the appallingly narrow country roads our TomTom has plotted to the Gîte where we will pass the first night of our journey.

imageIn truth, I do not exaggerate my adjectives in describing the perils and/or the charms of our present route. Though scenic, the roads allow barely enough room for one small Peugeot let alone two modestly-sized automobiles to pass — much less the breathtakingly (and I mean that literally) massive farm machinery we repeatedly encounter. Yet in between these alarums, the wondrous French countryside rolls out around us: hills and dales, hemmed in hedgerows and decked in varying shades of Emerald-City green; meadows spotted with herds of les vaches, noires et blanches, lolling like clumps of dotted-Swiss; with sheep, their gnarled unshorn skeins the color of the parched corn stalks that stand everywhere in fields awaiting harvest. There are forests too, little patchwork affairs quilted haphazardly into the interstices in shades of copper, crimson and yellow-gold. In fact, there is so much beauty one hardly knows where to let the eyes linger (much less where to aim the camera).

imageHours pass in this manner, until finally TomTom, guiding us with crisp British efficiency like little children (“in four-hundred meters bear right through the round-about, second exit, then, take the right of way”) down a score of winding, narrow farm paths brings us safely to the Gîte that will be our home base for the next two nights. We arrive at dusk and discover a miniature paradise: stone cottages surrounded by still verdant gardens, a little kingdom hidden behind hedgerow ramparts — a place of such charm that it warrants its own post. But that pleasant task will have to wait till later. For now, it is the charms of a late supper, a hot shower, and beddy-bye that beckon more insistently. Sleep, perchance to dream of ancient island-walled cities encircled with turrets, crowned in Romanesque spires. Une île pas comme les autres; une île entre ciel et mer.

Alors, jusqu’à demain …

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Train to Chartres

imageCopyright 2014 by Jack a Urquhart

This morning we–my partner and I and our lovely French friend Véronique–are on the train to Chartres. It’s a place I first read about fifty (ahem) something years ago: Life Magazine. Mr. Joyner’s 8th grade home room.

I remember well the photos depicting the magnificent cathedral seemingly afloat on an inland sea of fog and field grass. A magical place, it looked to me. I remember thinking how living close to it must be something akin to inhabiting a fairy tale–a romanticized notion to be sure; and yet, one I’ve never fully dispelled.

Now, in just a little over an hour, I will walk into that space of childhood fantasy fully awake, a seasoned “homme d’un certain âge,” as Véronique might say–a guy who has certainly been ’round the block more than a few times (with the nicks, scrapes, scars to prove it!). Yet here I am, still as easily heartbroken, moved to tears, by the horrors we humans leave in our wake, as well as the wonders we can make–beauty that dazzles across the centuries.

It’s been more than half a century since my first glimpse of a manmade miracle in Life Magazine–an architectural wonder, an arc made of stone and stained glass soaring, levitating, above the fields of France (and a fair amount of bumpy, twisty, sometimes spirit-crushing miles between). And yet I still hope, and, yes, even expect to be dazzled. I expect to encounter magic. Ou au moins un peu, peut-être?

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Twenty-four thousand one hundred thirty-seven days, by @jackaurquhart

©2014 by Jack A. Urquhart     786 words

God ParticleLately, I have been thinking about the passage of time and how quickly our individual allotments pile up—and how meaningfully. Or not.

There is nothing new in this, of course. We humans have been obsessed with life’s transience since we first learned to count, bedeviled by the meaning and miracle of our existence ever since the first synaptic impulse to contemplate our navels.

Perhaps the difference today is that technology has exacerbated our metacognitive tendencies, accelerated the frequency and rate of our obsessions. For who, in this age of electronic gadgetry and Internet omnipresence, would deny that we have more ways than ever to track the passage of our lives, more information (far more than we might sometimes wish) to fuel our expeditions in Omphaloskepsis—to draw upon in contemplating the significance of being alive.

By way of personal example, I cite the compulsive introspection that this morning sent me surfing across several online “days of your life” calculation sites (here’s one of them) that can, in the blink of an eye, compute the length of time one has been out and alive in the world.

Here is what I learned—that, as of September 18, 2014, my life tally amounts to:

24,137 days—or,
2,085,457,994 seconds
34,757,633 minutes
579,293 hours
3,448 weeks
1,724 fortnights
887 lunar months
778 months
259 quarters
464 dog years
66 years
68.11 lunar years
16.53 Olympiads
6.61 decades
0.66 centuries
0.06613 milleniums.

These calculations exclude the normal nine months of human gestation. That means that if I subscribed to all the tenets of the various “Personhood Initiatives,” (I do not), I could add another 270 +/- days in hours, minutes, seconds, etc., to the various above-noted reckonings.

But it wasn’t the computational specifics—not any desire to know the exact number of days, hours, minutes, etc.—that prompted my Internet investigations. Rather, it was because I couldn’t help wondering how many moments—out of the nearly 2.1 billion seconds (it turns out) of my life to date—had retained a consequential place in memory? How many of them had carried the bulk and resonance of meaning? I couldn’t help wondering what that tally might say about the huge swaths of my life that have vanished into a black hole of lost time and recollection—and more to the point, what might such a tally imply about the relative meaning of my life?

Daunting questions, I’ll grant, and not ones likely to yield reliable answers. Nevertheless, this die-hard (hopeful pun intended) navel gazer decided to pursue an unscientific experiment in that direction.

To wit, I set about recollecting and denoting (via the scientific method of check marks on tablet paper) as many significant life events as thirty minutes and a faulty memory would allow. By ‘significant’, I intended a moment in time important enough to spring, specifics intact, readily to mind. For example, a first love, lost love, last love. Or more precisely, my spouse’s surprise marriage proposal after 14 years of togetherness (Friday, September 28, 2012), the first time I heard “Rhapsody in Blue” (June 1958, 4th Grade, end of school year concert), weeping over the last page of To Kill a Mockingbird (November 9, 1962), my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon (July, 1970).

The wondrous births of my children.

My son’s death; my mother’s sudden passing.

You get the idea.

So how many checks were on my list at the end of that half hour, how many ‘significant’ memories readily summoned?

Big drumroll: 118.

What might that signify, I found myself wondering post clumsily executed experiment? What if anything could be gleaned from a mere 118 recollected moments out of hundreds of millions?

That would be the gazillion dollar question, wouldn’t it? The one, that given the paltriness of my checklist, I wasn’t sure I wanted to waste anymore time considering. And yet, and yet…there was—no, there is—something that stands out for me in contemplating the significance of those 118 memories. And that is that every last one of them centers on a moment so beautiful, so joyous, frightening, heart wrenching—so mind boggling and compelling—as to have stopped time.

As to have overcome caterwauling distraction.

As to have revealed a God Particle of insight and intuition, an excitement of understanding that imparts mass and weightiness to everything else, a reaction that once begun cannot be turned off.

As when we apprehend (the first time, and ever thereafter) what a curse, and a blessing, and a never-ending mystery is love, is loss.

Is a sudden spring snow; is a Chopin Berceuse.

Is being alive.

Who knows, perhaps that is as much meaning, as much understanding—as much of any God—as some of us can hope to tally in 24,137 days.

Or less.

Or more.

Hopefully more.

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Haiku for My Son, by @jackaurquhart

For Dillon Tyler Urquhart
March 8, 1979—August 2, 2013
©2014 by Jack A. Urquhart

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DillonHaiku2 PM

 

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You Don’t Say, free verse by @jackaurquhart

©2014 by Jack Andrew Urquhart

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

People say the damnedest things,
people meaning, you, of course—
say you can’t stand your mother,
whose definition of trauma
is a frizzled permanent wave.

Say that your children’s lunacy
makes of you a mental slave,
that their pecuniary dramas
bore you to bankruptcy.

 

 

Say you’d like to weed them—????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
these bush-league blossoms—
from the rose garden
of your verdant dreams.

Say anything, in fact,
to blunt the prick and prickle
of these thorns in your side.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????You don’t say
truth, of course:
that love is petulant
as a posy,
flagging and flowering
to the whims                                                           of temperamental climate;
that devotion can be cruel
and constant,
one day nurturing as a spring shower,
all drought and idle threats
the next.

 

You don’t say
the worst is complete conceit,????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
not a ghost of a chance
you’d follow through.

And so, your words
come back to haunt you—
every shade of hubris
every bald-face lie.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????You don’t say
it serves you right,
damn fool!

To think that you
could make a master gardener,
to think that you
(of all people!)
could coax bouquets
from a briar patch.

            ***

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