Copyright 2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
Paris, winter, 2016. We are here in the French capital again, my spouse Raymond and I, visiting dear friends for most of the month. Ray, who has an extensive history of European travel to his credit, has made this journey many times; I, however, have been in Paris on only four occasions. That said, if imagination counts for anything, then I have been to the storied City of Light innumerable times. For just as the Danish author Isak Dinesen purportedly claimed, I (too) have been a mental traveler. Just so, I have visited this city more times than I can recall. That is because Paris has captured my fancy for as long as I can remember.
As much as I hate to admit the cliché, I attribute my insatiable appetite for Paris to the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s: “An American in Paris” (1951, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron), “Lili” (1953, Leslie Caron), “Daddy Longlegs” (1955, Fred Astaire, Ms. Caron) and, of course, “Gigi” (1958, again with Caron). Those movies–set before a hungry kid living in the boondocks of pre-Disney central Florida–presented a full menu for this American’s Parisian dream; that would be Paris as the ultimate expression of everything graceful, romantic, cultured, nuanced and brimming with the understated permission to just be. The kind of place, in fact, where an oddball like me might not seem so out of place at the table.
Later in adolescence a particularly charming high school French Teacher, Mme D, encouraged that notion by regaling us, her students, with tales of her previous life in the French capital, and by recounting the tragedies and triumphs of her favorite contemporary French cultural icons: French General and statesman, Charles de Gaulle; African-American expatriate singer and entertainer, Josephine Baker; and most especially, the legendary Edith Piaf, regarded at the time as France’s national chanteuse. How delicious it was, following Mme D’s animated direction as we sang along with the recordings of France’s “Little Sparrow,” warbling in lousy French the lyrics of “La vie en rose,” “Non, je ne regrette rien,” and “Milord.” Only by attending to Piaf, Mme D maintained, could we (yokels all) hope to remedy our atrocious twangy accents, not to mention our choppy, elision-less phrasing.
Several years later, another artist’s work served to further whet my appetite for all things Parisian. I was a junior at the University of Florida in 1969 when Judy Collins released her wonderful album, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” a collection so mesmerizing–truly, every song is a gem–that I must’ve played it a thousand times that year. But in truth, there was one track that moved me more than the others. Collins’s “My Father,” a haunting homage to her coal miner patriarch’s poignant dream of escaping to a romantic life in Paris, carries me away to this day:
My father always promised us / That we would live in France / We’d go boating on the Seine / And I would learn to dance
It should go without saying, I expect, that such romantic notions as these rarely find a place at the table in real life. That is because day-to-day living serves up an endless banquet of distractions and competing priorities–enough of them sometimes to make us fat and lazy, or to see us waste away. And yet somehow the persistent fantasy of a different life in Paris–one where even a skinny southern misfit like myself might achieve selfhood–has simmered in the back kitchens of my consciousness all these years. Over time, it has become something of a favorite dish, one whose flavor I summon in imagination whenever real life offers only fast food.
Granted, there is a good case to be made that a recurring diet of make believe is nothing more than high calorie self-indulgence, and that to invest energy in imagining a life in Paris, or London, or New York, or, for that matter, in envisioning how we’d dispense our Power Ball lottery millions, is simply a waste of time. But to those arguments I would counter that my Parisian dream has kept me from starving to death countless times, has nurtured me through many a famine–through losses of employment and property, friends and lovers. Through losses of life.
Which brings me back to this current stay in the City of Light, coming as it does after a year of personal upheaval that culminated in a cross-country move, as well as the deeply troubling outcome of a nasty and soulless U.S. Presidential contest. How satisfying it has been in these times of uncertainty and seeming global scarcity to rediscover that my Parisian dream has some basis in reality. Which is to say that the city has lost none of its power to sustain me.
As when in my morning jogs up Avenue du Général-Leclerc, I experience real satisfaction and a sense of belonging, however temporary, in successfully dodging native pedestrians and piles of doggie poo (Merde happens. Even in Paris!) on my way to les Jardins du Luxembourg. Likewise, there is the pride and sense of personal investment I take in the majestic mansard-roofed apartment buildings (palaces in which I’m unlikely ever to reside) that line Avenue de l’Observatoire, and the terraces, balustrades, parterres, and tree-lined promenades of les Jardins.
Granted, there is nothing in my pedestrian reveries of Paris that comes close to the Hollywood magic that first inspired my yearnings for the city those many years ago, not even a soupçon of the grace of the Gene Kelly choreographed ballet set to the iconic symphonic poetry of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”. But I’m not sure that it matters if the most grandiose iterations of our fantasies ever find expression in real time, for surely there is room for economies of scale even in make believe.
Which is all by way of suggesting that perhaps the real measure, the real value of our most cherished imaginings, is their ability to feed our souls when the larders of life seem to hold nothing more than a few stale croutons.
Which is surely no small thing. Vraiment, pas du tout.
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
He wears loss ‘round his neck—
scintilla of ashes, bone, dust—
a steely, encapsulating talisman,
storied against his heart.
His fingers oil the patina
to a shade of smoky-gray.
This grief is a work in progress,
homage to procreative pomposity
and best paternal intentions,
a last-ditch mnemonic
to rhinestone-sparkling vanity
and false hope springs eternal.
All such tinder’d fables
must flare and burn away.
Yet, in the sooted residue,
the smallest spark may show—
to make of loss an artless art
(or so this story goes?)
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
They say being alive is a concatenation of scenes,
the sum of which equals a singular human performance.
So it is no surprise that since yours was cut short,
I find imperfect metaphors on every stage of life.
For your absence has defined me, has bequeathed
the part of a lifetime: I am the man who loses his son
and spends the rest of his life finding him.
Perfect casting, some might say, condign punishment
for lackluster paternal performance. And yet,
it is no easy sentence, no painless penance
chancing upon your likeness. For in a heart-throbbing instant,
you can suddenly reappear: your semblance in a child,
the living, breathing incarnation of perpetual motion
squirming delightedly in another man’s obliging arms;
something of your essence in every awkward juvenile
who trods the boards, thunderbolted youths yet out of sync
with the words and music of adolescent flesh.
Fitting I should glimpse you in the harried barista
whose bean-browned fingers do me service;
in the oleaginous youth sweltering fast-food heat on my behalf.
Rightful that the wearied waitperson standing witness to another’s appetite
should mime your resign-ed face. For you are serviceable
across every oeuvre, come comedy or high drama,
like a shooting star doomed by careless management
to overwork and early burnout, your billboarded similes are ubiquitous.
And yet, no comparison can do you justice. Even so, I find them out—
the mixed metaphors of your abbreviated life.
For such is the role of paternal grief—the daily re-discovery
that no likeness can enliven enduring loss.
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
I’m through talking to you,
she said, in her best aggrieved
spousal tone—this before launching
a litany of worst-case marital woes.
Quite a list it was, and accurate;
something about ambivalent husbands
making emotionally fragile wives.
Meanwhile, outside the kitchen window,
a blizzard of plum blossoms settling
into pink petal snow drifts
on the Spring carpeted earth.
Which aroused precipitous notions
of marriage as a seasonal feast:
Spring’s timorous first candied kiss
flaring to Summer’s hot-chili heat,
a can’t-get-enough-of-you stew
that’s breathtakingly delicious—
until autumn’s befalling,
and the first wintering frost.
Just so my simple-minded epiphany
collided with my wife’s intermission.
I don’t know why I keep trying,
she said, lapsing toward lingering silence.
But that was but one of many bare-faced lies,
if surely the dearest ever told—
just enough for a few more seasons.
But all this was many moons ago;
and so, perhaps convenient fiction—
the last words between wishful
‘Though that surely belies
the simple truth.
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart (500 words)
Call me crazy, but I like to fantasize about meeting god,
about hooking up with the über one for a face-to-face
encounter. Nowadays, that takes some real-time imagination,
what with virgin births and second comings scarce,
not to mention deity’s long holiday from humanity.
I mean, what’s up with that anyway—two thousand years,
practically incommunicado? Who gets that much time off,
I’d like to know? Luckily, I’m a creative type myself
(why should god have all the fun?), a natural at conjuring
divine stand-ins which, despite those old testament chestnuts,
[think “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”]
I believe totally justified given the big kahuna’s gone AWOL.
But whatever. Meantime, I’m finding icons of the digital age
make a godly substitute. Like one of those action genre divinities
all muscled up to the high heavens for the wide-screen,
or a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a P.S.A. trending on YouTube®.
Could even be a teen queen streaming country hits on Spotify®.
You get the picture. There’s a million possibilities out there.
That said, I won’t go out of my way for any “B-list” imitators.
No proselytizing, baby-kissing politicians (god forbid!),
Nor minor T.V. luminaries either. No FOX News® anchors
umbilically attached to their teleprompters; nor manscaped
celebrity chefs sporting au courant hair. No sitcom bombshells
hawking Spanx® and wrinkle creams on QVC®, et cetera.
I’m talking strictly superstar material here, a genuine icon
who’d be worshipped anywhere on god’s green earth
and seven continents—six if you’re of European persuasion
where they combine the Americas, excepting the contrary French,
who ignore Antarctica and thus, have only five (lord knows,
we humans all want to re-create the world!). But I digress.
To continue, my fantasy god stands in plain sight streetside;
could be the Champs-Élysées or a squalorous alley in old Bombay.
Could be Bumfuck, Texas. Doesn’t matter. There she/he is,
waiting to be idolized. And man, do the pilgrims prostrate!
Everyone is agog at my god. Everyone but me, that is.
Since it’s my delusion, I can cut to the chase with the divine,
dispense with that holier-than-thou crap and get down to business.
“Pardon me, god-almighty,” I say, striking up conversation.
“Since we probably won’t meet again, I was wondering—
could we try something? Could we try to see each other,
really see each other for a change?” That’s how I put it to god.
And then, I just stand there waiting, holding god’s eye, so to speak.
The whole thing takes thirty secs, max. Not much to ask, IMHO.
I conclude the meeting with a single word: “Beautiful,” I say.
Very simple. Some might say elegant. Just ‘Beautiful’.
In my best imaginings, there’s always a sonorous heavenly coda:
“I was just about to say the same,” my god replies. Words to that effect.
And yet, I can’t help wondering—is this last pushing fantasy too far,
not to mention flouting precedent? After all, history is clear on one thing:
that the gods rarely recognize their creators.