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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Paris View of the Montmartre Dead

   On a rainy afternoon, we arrived at the Montmartre Cemetery with a daunting task.  We were there to search for a particular crypt in the vast, stepped expanse of this ancient burial ground.  The immediate obstacle to this mission was our uncertainty of the name on the crypt.  However, we had both seen a photo of it, and we felt we just might get lucky and recognize it.
   Some memories hold on tightly, and we can simply call them up when they are needed.  Other memories die as easily as a fragile man and can only be recalled as a ghost of what we actually remember.  These are memories never to be trusted--they are always distorted, deceiving, and often completely false.  Such was the case with our collective memory of the crypt for which we were searching.  We never found it.  And we returned home and dug out the original photo and found our memory of it was completely in error.

   The rain fell more steadily there than it had previously anywhere in Paris during our visit.  There was no wind.  We were not cold.  But we could not escape the damp clinging to our jackets and our hats.  It seemed appropriate as we passed up and down the hauntingly beautiful pathways amongst those stone and copper memorials to those men and women who had once passed up and down the pathways of the past.  These same dead, perhaps, might have once passed up and down these same hauntingly beautiful pathways upon which we were presently passing.  Though they would never join us that day on our search, it was easy to be reminded of the fact that one day we would join them and be counted among those men and women who had once passed up and down the pathways of the past, though not all of that past has yet been written.  It is always this humbling thought that arises as we pass among the dead.  Though we are alive and they are no more, we cannot arrogantly claim supremacy over them by virtue of our beating hearts.  They lived just as vividly, just as honestly, just as treacherously, and just as cleverly as we.  The only distinction that separates us is the fact that they have already faced eternity while we can only wait to do so when that moment finally arrives.

   And so our search was eventually abandoned amidst the wet array of crosses, names, dates, crows, and cats.  Tears streamed down the mildewed faces of mourners frozen in stone.  A lone grave digger used a noisy air compressor to hoist buckets of white clay out of a heavily used plot, preparing the way for yet another convert to eternity.  A couple from California stopped us and asked for directions.  We did the best we could to help them.  We made an attempt to leave by way of a gate that was not the one we had entered but found it chained and locked.  We could only leave by finding and using the only gate that had allowed us entry into this ancient gathering place.  Perhaps they do not allow short cuts there.  Or at least they discourage them, as we discourage short cuts to eternity.  You cannot choose how you enter this world just as you cannot choose how you leave it.  But you can, for a time, enjoy its beauty, help those you meet along the way, and remember those who passed ahead of us.

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