New post: Poem for a lost child @EvryManJac

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An American’s Parisian Dream @EvryManJac

Les Jardin du Luxembourg

Les Jardins du Luxembourg

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.

 

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Residue: a prose poem, @EvryManJac


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©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart

(for D.T.U.)

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?)

 

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Mixed Metaphors (prose poem)

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©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart

For Dillon
03.08.1979—08.02.2013

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.

 

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Last Words: A Marriage Memory (prose poem)

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©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
and thinking.
‘Though that surely belies
the simple truth.

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Reflections on Selling the Family Home: the Life-Changing Challenges of Decluttering House and Mind

Time to Let Go

© 2016 by Jack A. Urquhart 1500 words

Recently, in preparation for another major move, I have been reading Marie Kondo’s best-selling paean to the joys of decluttering, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo’s book, the well-timed gift of a dear friend, has proven instructive as I sort and cull the material goods of our soon to be sold central Florida home. That would be the ranch-style house my parents built in 1960 and that has, in the nearly sixty years since, been home to various members of the Urquhart clan, immediate and extended.

For the last three years since my Mother’s death, the house has been home to spouse, Raymond, and to me. And I can testify that letting go of the place has not been easy. Nevertheless, I’ve found that there is much to be said for Marie Kondo’s approach to tidying. Put simply, Japan’s Mistress of all things neat and orderly holds that one must physically handle one’s personal possessions—each and every one of them—in order to determine if the item should stay or go. If the thing inspires hand-held ‘joy,’ it stays. Anything else and it’s going, going, gone.

If that sounds ‘New Agey’, then welcome to my club. But I can honestly say that I’ve experienced satisfaction in employing some of Kondo’s paring down techniques. The goal the author advocates, and that I’m shooting for, is, I believe, a worthy one—that the possessions going forward with one in life, to paraphrase Kondo, should only be things that evoke something akin to happiness.  Which means that one must learn the ‘art’ of decluttering.  And then practice it.  Assiduously.

No small order, but, it seems to me, do-able.

Alas, if only Kondo’s teachings were as easily applied to all kinds of ‘possessions’, all kinds of clutter! Namely, the mental variety. The kind I’ve encountered in moving room to room these past few weeks.

It’s an odd assemblage, this mental dis-order I’m discovering—a messy jumble of worry, regret, and nostalgia—almost all of it to do with my parents (big surprise). I’m finding it in every room—little bits and pieces of parental history begging to be tidied, lovingly folded and stored away like the shirts and camisoles featured in Kondo’s Zen-like YouTube Video.

The messiness awaits attention, to cite a few paternal examples, in the cheaply paneled room my father tacked onto the main house back in the late 60s. The room, a flat-roofed concoction, was Dad’s solution to the problem of where to put a pool table he’d brought home on what, if memory serves, was a Bourbon-fueled whim. The walls in his “billiards room” still bear the pockmarks of his cue racks, the scrapes and holes yet in need of putty and paint. Working on the other side of the house, I am reminded in emptying the linen closet of how the towels and bed sheets once concealed Dad’s ‘secret’ stash of Wild Turkey.

Workaholic and taciturn when sober, my father never talked about his drinking, just like he never talked about his World War II service in the Pacific—an experience that, I’ve been told, commenced almost immediately after his enlistment at the age of seventeen. Why, I kept wondering in packing up our linens, had it never occurred to me that Dad’s boozing might’ve been anesthesia against painful memory? Certainly a few shots of the hard stuff always seemed to unlock his vault-like heart, seemed to set loose something that was almost happy-go-lucky. Perhaps the remnants of the boy he’d once been? Barring the discovery of a long-lost diary, it’s unlikely I’ll ever have an answer. Just like I’ll never know what epiphany of consciousness led him late in life to Alcoholics Anonymous and the stoic sobriety of his retirement years. Dad passed much of that time in his private “billiards room” where, ensconced in his Lazy Boy, he spent his days watching televised sporting events. That is, until the cancer took hold. He never offered an explanation for the years that went before, and I never asked.

Conversely, my mother, always a font of ceaseless (sometimes charming, other times exasperating) chatter, favored the open gathering spaces of the house. Like the sewing corner she carved out of the “Florida Room.” For years Mom, a frugal child of the Great Depression, created her Sunday-school finery in that space relying for inspiration on the ever-changing stylistic guidebook of her Simplicity patterns.

Disposing of her ancient push-pedal sewing machine recently stirred up a whirlwind of dusty history. Like the memory of how in later life, her eyes grown weak, Mom abandoned seamtressing for quilting, laboriously hand-working in that same corner of the house intricate padded patterns—Cathedral Windows, Jacob’s Ladder, Windmills—into artful creations that would become part of the legacy she left her grandchildren. Until recently, her quilted samplers hung in several rooms. They’ve all been packed away now; but Mom’s energy lingers on.

I encounter odds and ends of it in the kitchen where the center isle is currently strewn with box tape and bubble wrap. Packing the flatware not long ago, I couldn’t help but reflect on the twice-weekly breakfasts Mom and I shared during the last years of her life. All those rambling gossipy sessions came back for close examination—like the way Mom invariably got ‘round to touting Baptist orthodoxy (as the only reliable path to eternal salvation), or the way she would laugh in recalling how in decades past, she’d always played parental enforcer—the one who made sure my brother and I, squirming on uncomfortable stools at the same kitchen isle, completed our homework before we were allowed escape into the neighborhood. A neighborhood, I should add, that in those days was a jungle garden of school-aged Baby-Boomers swinging (sometimes literally) from the trees.

Today the old neighborhood’s demographics swing more to a middle-aged jog, if not a downright geriatric shuffle. But all that is about to change, as it always does. And soon.

That is because, barring real-estate catastrophe, come June 30, a much younger mother and father, accompanied by their school-aged children, will bring new vitality to the ‘hood. Together they will take possession of these rooms, this house, and proceed to fill the spaces of their home with hopes, dreams, and yes, I expect, clutter. Of every kind.

Likewise, on that same day, Raymond and I will begin a cross-country trek toward the next chapter of our lives. Heading west (again), we’ll make our way toward the So-Cal coastal town that will become our new home, settling by mid-July into a condo close by where family and friends are already in residence.

But In the meantime, there are household possessions to be culled. Right here. Right now. There are goods to be packed, memories to be examined and neatened (as much as that is ever possible). There’s a lot of work to be done.

I expect this post is part of that work—part of the attempt to extract sense from disorder.

Even so, I know that I won’t complete the job here, that much of the clutter, mental and otherwise, will head west with me. Whole rooms of it.

Indeed, I expect I’ll be unpacking and sorting the stuff for the rest of my days. I expect to be revisiting these Florida rooms in my dreams, in my daytime reveries and in moments of random déjà vu. For that is how it has always been for me—the business of making sense of life: rarely in the short run, with the clutter quickly sorted and placed magically in its proper perspective. But rather, usually well after the fact, after having unpacked my baggage, handled it, and sorted it. Many, many times. Only then do the clues concealed in the mess begin to divulge their meaning, and their importance. Sometimes on no more than a moment’s notice.

Here in conclusion is one of those moments—the recent realization that I miss my parents more now than I ever did when they were alive and living half-a-continent away.

Which means that I must have loved them. Far more than I realized. And isn’t that sad, sad, sad. But then, I’ve always been a slow learner. And chronically myopic. Not one to take a good hard look at things—until they’re right in my face.

Which brings me back to this house, this brick and mortar parental metaphor for everything I’m struggling to assess. I suppose I should be encouraged that in some mysterious and surprising way, I find myself handling, quite literally if not particularly skillfully, a lifetime’s accrued baggage. And in very close quarters. It will take time to complete that appraisal. And there will be sadness. But also moments of gladness. The kind of ‘joy’ that Marie Kondo perhaps had in mind when she began espousing the ‘life-changing’ merits of tidying up. Like the thrilling exhilaration that comes in recognizing what to keep, and what to let go.

I’m beginning to think the lady is on to something.

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god fantasy (a prose poem) by Jack A. Urquhart

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©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.

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