Grateful For The Dead
“Is this the best of all possible worlds?” Walter asked the statue of Voltaire from the crypt floor.
“God, I hope not,” the statue replied back. “But you should always be grateful for a garden that needs cultivating. Boredom doesn’t come from an absence of happiness, but from an absence of suffering, because without suffering, eventually philosophical speculating—aka those voices in your head—will drive you to suicide.”
“But still, what an absurd way of looking at life. I need suffering to make life fulfilling? And how much uncultivated garden can one person handle before it’s better to just put down the plough and pick up the gun?”
“That’s a question only the person can answer because it is the only question everyone must answer, whether or whether not to commit suicide in the face of life’s absurdity.”
“Okay Camus, no one asked your opinion.”
“You’re the one who brought up absurdity. And you don’t think I’ve kept up with the progression of philosophy in the afterlife? But regardless, the conclusion to his and my opinions are the same. A mountainous journey contains many more miles than a flat one because it offers the perspective of a new dimension. And perspective is where the beauty of suffering can be seen and how one can appreciate the absurdity of the journey—or their garden.”
“Or in other words, enlightenment through suffering . . . You know Voltaire,” Walter said rubbing his chin, “everyone pins you as optimism’s adversary, but I believe you’re actually one of its biggest advocates. You just believe optimism shouldn’t be blind and idle, but instead the fertilizer for our gardens. Only through the shit of life can we grow a new perspective on it. And while I’m not certain of anything anymore, I am certain of this: insanity certainly hasn’t been boring. So cheers to you Monsieur Arouet, or shall I say, santé!”
Sat upon the ground, leaning against a marbled wall, Walter raised his CamelBak backpack to the statue like a hobo raising a flask, then stuck the straw in his mouth and sucked the last of his whiskey-water mixture down.
“Don’t tell Rousseau or the Curies I said it,” he continued, “but in this ‘temple of every god’, you’re mine. If there was anyone I’d want to sit down and have a drink or joint with—actually you know what, let’s go 18th Century style and get loaded on caffeine and find a salon to theorize in.”
“Yes sir, please do,” the museum security guard said. He then turned to the statue. “But I’m sorry Voltaire, you must stay here. However, I believe it will make no difference if you want to still carry on this conversation elsewhere.”
“What?” Walter said. “I don’t understand.”
“Monsieur, vous devez partir, s’il vous plait.”
“Quoi—I mean, what? Je ne comprends pas français—I mean, I don’t understand French.”
The guard exhaled politely. “You must go.”
“Cinq minutes plus s’il vous plait?—I mean, can I have five more—”
“Can you please stop that sir? Please, just French or English. And no, I already give you five minutes. The other guests, they complain. You are not alone here.”
“Oh.” The audience of tickled and uneasy faces suddenly appeared before Walter. When he first entered Voltaire’s tomb, he’d been alone, but in the two hours since and a CamelBak’s worth of whiskey-water later, apparently it had filled without his notice.
“I’m calling the police,” the security guard said. Walter jumped up quickly.
“No-no. Not necessary,” he said. “It’s time for me to go anyway. I have other people to see—or not see.” He then turned to Voltaire one last time. “Merci moi. Merci.”
Taking a taxi, Walter told the driver to take a lap of the city past the Eiffel Tower then a few rounds on the world’s most famous roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe. As they drove, he had never seen anything like Paris. Flat pastures of civilization barnacled with visible history for as far as the eye could see, then faded into a hazy horizon of skyscraper islands fenced in distinct districts of modernity.
After a sleepless night in his Amsterdam hostel, he’d taken the first train there, and as much as he tried to sleep then drink himself to sleep on the train, his mind wouldn’t shut up. So he figured might as well consult the dead before seeing the living in Paris since they had been of more help lately. But after spending his morning with Descartes at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés abbey, then his afternoon at the Panthéon with the Curies, Rousseau, and his longest visit, Voltaire, these consultations didn’t seem as vivid as his previous one—or ones—had been. And as hard as he tried to take himself out of the conversation with whiskey and believe he was hearing their voices, he knew in reality he was only consulting himself through them.
After breezing past the Eiffel Tower, his taxi crossed over the Seine, then entered the Arc de Triomphe roundabout that was ten unmarked lanes wide with twelve intersecting streets. As they cut into this circling circus, it seemed like everyone was in a game to get to the center of the roundabout where its stone overlord stood like the Kaaba to motor vehicles. Tour buses took polite, lethargic turns around, while small cars and scooters stung and squirmed through the open gaps. There was a constant cheeping of horns, not so much in discord, but in communication like bats echolocating one another. Taxi cars were the most common worshiper crammed with people craning their necks and cameras up to capture the colossal creature in the center standing taller than any surrounding building and resembling a gigantic, gaudy anchoring pin dedicated to “winning”. But as Walter orbited this “triumphal” arc, all he did was think about all the defeats it played a role in. But a monument erected to the ego in the center of your city is just asking to be made a mockery of.
The irony of this “triumphal” arc and its circling circus was making for very comical surrealism in Walter’s liquored head. He began to gush with laughter which soon turned to hiccups. Then the lack of oxygen and spinning began making him feel dizzy and suddenly his whiskey wanted out. His taxi driver hearing his dry heaving as it climbed up his esophagus, raced to the center just in time for Walter to expel it out onto the arc.
His taxi driver then skidded away, but Walter easily found another sucker at a nearby taxi lane and continued on his way to Père Lachaise Cemetery.
“Dans ces derniers jours!” a stoutly woman vagrant was shouting at the gates of the main entrance of the cemetery like some retail department store greeter. Although he was only able to decipher the aforementioned phrase which followed almost every sentence, it was clear she was trying to scare the uncaring sightseers walking past her into repentance. Walter couldn’t ignore her.
“…dans ces derniers jours!” she yelled at him after some muddled French.
“Quoi?” he said, but got the same response. She then reached out and put something in his hand. It was a map of the cemetery.
“Oh. Merci,” he said to her. “Où est Chopin?” he asked pointing to the map, but got the same “dans ces derniers jours!” response.
Using the map instead, Walter easily located Chopin beneath his impressive and gated tombstone which not only had his portrait carved into it, but a life-size sculpture of the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping on top of it.
Sitting at the steps of the grave, looking at Chopin’s face, little was said, but much was felt, just like his music. Then like Euterpe, Walter too shed deep sobs over the short and somber life which was Frédéric Chopin’s.
Tormented by ill love and health all his life and estranged from his Polish homeland and heritage, the vulnerability, intimacy, and bravery which fed his compositions listens like a diary, as if written for his hands and ears only. Unlike the many prominent and showboating Parisian pianists of his time, Chopin hated the spotlight and rarely performed publicly, preferring the privacy of salons. The ultimate and original romantic, he died young and broke at the age of thirty-nine, but composing since the age of seven, his artistic output was that of a man who knew he had little time on Earth.
Once finished with his weeping, Walter opened his backpack and took out a small bouquet of violets he’d purchased from a flower shop that morning and placed them on the grave, then continued on.
Not far from Chopin’s was the much more modest tomb of Marcel Proust, just a forlorn black platform etched with his name. Sitting on it, Walter ran his hand over the letters cut into the polished black marble and thought about Amber. Even though he was there because she asked him, he’d grown a great appreciation for the writer because of her.
Inspired by his father who had been responsible for eradicating cholera in France, Marcel Proust wanted to write a book that would do as much good for humanity as his father’s work. The subsequent result was a massive masterpiece called In Search of Lost Time, a story about a man’s journey to find the meaning and purpose of life in an effort to learn how to best appreciate existence and make the best use of time. In it are explored three possible answers.
“Fame?” Walter said to the grave. “If only I had read your book when I was younger maybe I wouldn’t have wasted so much time seeking it because it’s exactly as you said: a fraud. Anyone who thinks fame will gain you access to some extraordinary stratum of happiness will be sorely disappointed. No amount of money, celebrity, or titles can ever save you from misery, loneliness, and stupidity.
“So what about love? I mean, that’s why I’m here in Paris. But however honorable love may advertise itself, fulfilling your life through the love of another has only a vacuum of meaning once that love abandons you, a lesson Amber unfortunately taught me all too well, but so did Shiva. We will always be lonely islands within the sea of ourselves, and until you can get comfortable living there, no one else will.
“So what? Are we just supposed to be content in our suffering then, cultivating our gardens on our lonely islands? The answer is yes. As children, our gardens and islands were all we needed. And it’s not so much we grew out of them, we just forgot how big and extraordinary they actually are. But what reminds us is art. It can make even the most mundane novel again. And whether we consider ourselves ‘novel’-ists or not, we’re all writing at least one story: our life, and doesn’t that story deserve to be novel? Should it not be the medium for our greatest masterpiece? Yet so many of us copy in fear of failure and surrender our childhood powers of creativity and curiosity to the stability and predictability of habit, then wonder why the time seems to pass us by so quickly or why life always feels so empty. The purpose and meaning of life is finding purpose in meaninglessness and meaning in purposelessness, and for everyone that answer is different, but it can only come from questioning yourself. However, that’s a hard thing to do if you don’t love yourself or are afraid to be with yourself. Yourself shouldn’t be a stranger.”
Walter sat up from the tombstone in astonishment. Although he knew the story, he had never understood it so clearly until now. But often the arrow of time is what finally zippers together the cogs of knowledge and experience into understanding.
He took out a metal spoon from his backpack and found a small patch of dirt next to the tomb and began digging. Once he had a small hole, he took out Amber’s suicide note and placed it in it.
“Thank you,” he said. “I hope you can forgive me. But even if you don’t think I deserve forgiveness, I will always love you for what you always gave me: love. You didn’t deserve to die alone feeling unloved, and I’m so sorry for that Amber. I love you. I love you.”
He then took out his lighter and lit the note, and once it was ashes, he buried them in the dirt and continued to his final grave.
The air seemed to suddenly chill as Walter neared his purposeful final destination, Jim Morrison’s grave, hidden in a dense thicket of headstones. He knew he was getting closer by the growing number of young people around, but also a faint voice prickling his ears telling him he was. Stopping to listen, he then heard what the voice was saying, or more so singing, “Harvest Moon”. His hair stood on end.
“No, it’s not,” Walter said, but it sure sounded like it. He had never heard another voice like it.
Now tremoring, he moved slowly toward the grave, the volume of the voice only increasing. After cresting a hill, he then at last saw the grave he’d been seeking, and in front of it, a brilliant red beacon beaming in the sunlight, the same red he had seen on the pillow the morning after his night in Amsterdam. However, whoever was beneath this red hair had her back to him and was sitting with a guitar, playing toward the grave. Around her was a small crowd listening under a gum-and-graffiti-infested tree that had been decorated by Jim’s admirers.
Continuing toward her, Walter started singing along. Hearing his voice, she turned around and roused to her feet in surprise, dropping the guitar on the ground, but neither stopped singing. Her eyes were tinted by rose-colored glasses. A royal blue summer dress hung over her black canvas Doc Martens. They stepped toward him.
Once within reach, Walter touched her face, expecting it to change like the others, but this one stayed. He then took off the glasses and big gray eyes smiled back at his.
“I want to see you dance again…” they sang as they took each other’s arms and began dramatically dancing around the tree like they did on the boat deck. At the end of the song, he then dipped her, then kissed her, and only after the kiss did he become entirely convinced of her existence.
“How dare you start our song without me,” he said.
“Who said I didn’t know you were coming?” she replied. “How else were you supposed to find me?”
“Shiva?” Walter asked. “Are you really her? Are you really here?”
“Yes,” Shiva said smiling. “I’m really me, and I’m really here. Been here for quite some time actually. It’s the only place I knew you’d be in Paris. Is it really you Walter? Are you really here?”
“Yes, I am—well, I think I am. Je pense, donc je suis.”
They both then fell to the ground crying and laughing madly, kissing ever inch of each other’s salty cheeks.
“I love you Shiva,” Walter said. “Maybe it’s premature, but you wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to say it.”
“I love you Walter,” Shiva replied. “And believe me, I know. You also wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to say it. It’s been a long strange trip since Red Rocks.”
“Red Rocks?” Walter said sitting up.
Shiva smirked and also sat up. “You still haven’t figured it out?” she said. “You really think you survived being struck by lightning?”
“Lightning? . . . Wait, I’m… I’m dead?”
“Surprise!” she said laughing.
“But… but what about all the people I’ve met since then?” Walter asked.
“Some in your head, some dead like you, some alive depending on the ‘time’,” Shiva replied. “No one really knows in the afterlife. Here there is no such thing as ‘time’; no such thing as dead or alive. We souls live in the world of Schrödinger's cat you could say. Like massless particles, we are unaffected by spacetime and therefore can exist at all possible places at all possible times. This shouldn’t surprise you. It all falls within the laws of physics.”
“I suppose it does…” Walter said, but his head was shaking no.
“You still don’t believe me,” Shiva noticed.
“I don’t know what to believe. All I know is Death was much simpler being nothing . . . So does this mean there’s a God? Is He Kurt Vonnegut?”
Shiva laughed again. “It’s not impossible,” she replied, “but to be honest, I’m not sure who’s running the show, or if anyone is running the show. And also, if there is a God, He would most likely be an It. No gender pronouns in the afterlife. Just like we are neither dead or alive, we are neither male or female since every soul has lived as both throughout existence. Plus I’ve been told by other souls the x chromosome goes on to out evolve the y chromosome in future generations of humans anyway, and in the year 4000 F.E., Homo cypiens officially designated everyone an ‘it’. But don’t worry. We have all the ‘time’ in the world to get to all that later. Right now we’ve got a joint to smoke and a bottle of wine to drink with Jim,” she said pulling both out of a bag.
“Like in-person?” Walter asked.
“Oh no. Just in-body. Last I heard Jim’s soul was almost finished redoing its life over as a writer.”
“You can do that?”
“Many times over, and you already have many times over. But guess what? You no longer have to. Today we leave purgatory together, and that calls for a celebration!”
Walter began shaking his head again. “Purgatory is real?” he said.
“Nothing is ‘real’,” Shiva said laughing, “but yes. We’re in it. But not for much longer.”
“So what’s next?” he asked. “Paradise?”
“So I’ve been told.”
“What’s it like?”
“Hopefully like paradise, but I’ve never been. I’ve been waiting here for you.”
“How long have you been waiting?” Walter asked.
“Almost a year in ‘living’ years, but that’s nothing in purgatory,” Shiva said. “I kind of got a hall pass on purgatory, however, I wasn’t going to leave without you, so that’s why I gave you my hall pass, the Ace of Cups. It entangled our souls together and that’s why you were quantum-tracked through purgatory.”
“Like quantum entanglement?”
Shiva smiled. “Now you’re getting it,” she said. “It was my mother’s hall pass and she—it was a she at the ‘time’—gave me the pass just before she passed on from purgatory. Her purgatory, however, was served ‘in life’, so when she gave it to me I was still ‘living’ and just a child.”
“So I was supposed to be in purgatory much longer?” Walter asked.
“From a four dimensional spacetime perspective you were. But you’ll eventually learn to see things outside your lower-dimensional bias.”
Walter’s head began shaking in disbelief again. “So were you dead or alive when I met you?” he asked.
“You’ve really got to let go of being dead or alive,” she said. “In reality we’re all just being. However, yes. I was ‘dead’ just like you. I just didn’t know it at the ‘time’, just like you.”
“What did you die from? Huntington’s?”
“Again, dying is relative just like ‘time’, but at the ‘time’ the disease never had ‘time’ to get me.”
“What did then?” Walter asked.
“Well…” Shiva said looking off to the side, “essentially I killed myself by entangling us together. ‘Time’ had to be adjusted so that you and I died at the same ‘time’ in the past, but still met at the same ‘time’ in the future. In order to do that, the past and future had to be layered on top of one another. But this happens all the ‘time’ to ‘time’ because ‘time’ is nothing but a construct of our lower-dimensional four-dimensional plane. But again, none of this should be a surprise to you. After all, it is what you theorized.”
“Yes…” Walter said, but his head was still saying no. “But theorizing about the universe is much easier than accepting it.”
“Don’t worry,” Shiva said caressing his face, “you’ll adjust. Just imagine if our universe—which is in truth just a fraction of the universe—was shrunk to the size of an atom and someone tried probing in. Do you think that being could even fathom our idea of ‘time’ from their perspective? No, they’d see an entire timeline of the universe playing out at all possible places and at all possible times just like we do when we probe into the world of the atom. However, when you’re unaffected by the fabric of spacetime and no longer bound by the rules of light like us souls are, you realize our world and the world of the atom are one in the same.”
“Okay. But still, you haven’t explained how you died. You died on our four-dimensional plane in some way and at some ‘time’ to be here, right?”
Shiva looked at Walter sideways and smiled. “That’s another story for another ‘time’,” she replied. “But right now, let’s just enjoy this weed and wine.”