The first time I went to Paris, in late August of 1988, I was nineteen years old. I had never expected that I would travel so far. None of it felt real. I visited the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and the Louvre. Then I visited the place I most wanted to see: Jim Morrison’s grave in Père LaChaise cemetery. His music and poetry had helped me through my turbulent high school years. His image had hung on my bedroom wall. I had worn a button with his photo on my black leather jacket. On the vacant building across from my high school, I had spray painted the same words that I had doodled all over my school notebooks: Jim Morrison Lives. I had self-medicated with whatever I could find (which, thankfully, wasn’t much in those days) and had written stream of consciousness poetry while listening to An American Prayer. Scarcely two years had passed since then, and yet a lot had changed in my life. Much of my rage had dissipated, but scars remained.
A handful of people were gathered around the grave. Someone had scrawled a poem and left a rose in an empty wine bottle on the battered slab that passed for his tombstone. A young man slouched on the next grave over. He clutched a dog-eared paperback and his face was contorted with angst. I stood for a few moments, my head bowed. Disappointed in myself for feeling numb, for forgetting to bring a flower, at least. I snapped a couple of photos and left, feeling like a thief.
In January of 2000, my husband brought me along on his business trip to Paris. I had recently begun to write with the intent of being published. I wanted to visit Jim Morrison’s grave again, even though I’d long since realized that a lot of his poetry was nothing more than random, incoherent scrawlings from his notebooks that his estate had published in order to milk as much money as possible out of his legacy. It had been years since I’d listened to a Doors album. Even so, he was the first person who sparked in me the urge to write. Because of him, I had learned that it was possible to push the boundaries of creativity and revel in strangeness.
The battered old tombstone had been replaced, and there was an epitaph written in Greek “ΚΑΤΑ ΤΟΝ ΔΑΙΜΟΝΑ ΕΑΥΤΟΥ”, which means “true to his self”. Despite the bitterly cold day, there were about a dozen people gathered around. I placed my wilted rose on the frozen earth, touched the tombstone, and whispered, “Thank you.” When I looked up, I saw wistful smiles.
In March of 2010, I visited Père LaChaise once more. This time it was in search of the Countess de Castiglione, who is the subject of a novel that I’ve been writing off and on for years. After I had found her, I meandered the immense labyrinth until I spotted a small crowd gathered around a metal fence. They all seemed so young, but then I realized that I was their age when I made my first pilgrimage. The tombstone was unchanged, but it could now only be viewed from afar.
I reflected on my previous visits and how I had changed since then. I had recently rediscovered the music that had been the soundtrack to my teenage rebellion. I was finally mature enough to understand. The adulation I had felt as a teenager, and the cynicism of my thirties had morphed into simple empathy. He was a human being who had dared to confront his demons while the world looked on, and had ended up being consumed by them.
I did not linger.