Copyright 2014 by Jack A. Urquhart
“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.
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.