Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras
Coleen Murphy

I live in New Orleans. Some days even I have trouble understanding that, but it's true. And I love this place. I fell in love with New Orleans during my first visit at the age of seven, but I never expected it to be a long term thing. The bigger surprise was discovering the joy of Mardi Gras. The joy and the pain. No, really, even prior to the disaster – and that's how I refer to it – I dislike calling what happened by the name of the storm because, y'all, it wasn't just a storm that happened here; I also reject cutesy terms such as “Pre-K” for the way our lives were before – but what I was saying is, it's always been a mixed experience, a complex celebration, with levels and layers and a diversity of experience that is conspicuously absent from any Girls Gone Wild videos out there.

I spend a lot of my time in meetings these days. Meetings to get our library branch re-opened, meetings to keep our free clinic running, meetings to get our church building gutted and rebuilt. I feel intensely aware of my responsibilities as a member of the community now – I have chosen consciously, after all, to live here, and I feel a need to do that living deeply, passionately and compassionately, with a sense of accountability. Right now, that involves a lot of meetings. During the few days following Mardi Gras this year I sat in three separate meetings in which deaths were discussed. Recent deaths – folks who have passed in the course of these past few days – were talked about, the sorrow of the losses, of course, but what haunts me are the facts of the logistical obstacles in dealing with them, with the bodies, I mean. And those things, those aspects of nothing being normal anymore get way more intense when what we're talking about is not slow mail delivery or long lines at the grocery store but multiple calls to funeral homes only to find that nobody, nobody can come and pick up the body of your loved one today, nope, you're just going to have to wait. Can you imagine? Can you?

And in this sharing, someone said, So I started Mardi Gras day with this news that someone had passed on. And all day, I kept thinking, well that's right. We all know that Carnival means a farewell to the flesh, don't we?

And I did what I do so often these days, I just nodded and cried.

In the middle of Carnival, Andrei Codrescu wrote that this year Mardi Gras felt more like Day of the Dead. And I realized that I had been thinking that for weeks but feeling that to speak it was somehow taboo.

On the Saturday morning of Mardi Gras weekend I attended a public grief ritual in Congo Square. One section of the preamble to the invitation jumped out at me: The results of Hurricane Katrina continue to manifest as actual and perceived abandonment; separation of families; incredible loss of property, family, social networks and life; and knowledge of and experience with the government’s inability to keep its social contract. Whether one experienced Hurricane Katrina directly or indirectly, it has precipitated suffering: intense sadness, depression, physical health breakdown, anger and rage.

Well, yeah! The combined experience of reading that paragraph and Codrescu's remarks was validating for me in ways that are difficult to put into words. It was like they gave me permission to grieve openly. To rage. To acknowledge the horror of this. And also, to observe Mardi Gras. To say some public farewells, and to celebrate and affirm life. To laugh and to cry and to costume and be ridiculous. To gather in the streets with my children and our beloved community and dance our ever loving asses off.

My kids and I are part of the Krewe of Les Enfants du Nod – a group of parents and children who parade, permit-free, through the neighborhoods known as the Bywater & the Fauborg Marigny on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Like so many things, there was a question of whether Les Enfants could and would go on in spite of everything...and like so many things, the event was better—more alive and meaningful and important and fun—than ever.

This year's theme was Species Native to Louisiana. There was a brother and sister duo parading as red beans & rice (their parents wore chef'’s hats made of the bright blue plastic that covers a good quarter of the roofs in my neighborhood), a New Orleans Saint, several alligators, crawfish and catfish, and a tiny Joan of Arc (not a native, but dear to us just the same). My favorite costume was the mother who was dressed, from the front, as a bottle of Louisiana's own Abita Beer. On her back she wore a list of “reasons I don't want to live on the moon” which included moon pies, Zapp's chips, turtle soup, gumbo, City Park and Audubon Park, among others, finishing with And Most of All... Friends!

Now, I didn't ask her what her costume meant. We were parading, after all, and there were beads to throw and toddlers to keep track of, songs to sing, friends on the sidewalk to run to and hug...but I also didn't ask her because I think I know. Because I spent the month of September in exile from New Orleans and I can tell you right now that I felt like I might as well have been on the moon.

And I know that not everyone will understand. That there are those who see this as no time for a celebration of any kind. Part of me wants to just blame it on my kids – we did it for the children! Well, that's the truth of my Halloween story, when we went trick-or-treating in an eerily dark neighborhood, past stinking, dead refrigerators and heaps of debris. But that's not my true Carnival story, no. I was up at 6:45am on Mardi Gras morning, up letting the dogs out, listening to the radio and getting my costume together while my kids still slept. I adjusted my pirate hat and picked up my eyeliner just as a story – there is always a story, it seems – about the disaster began. I put the make-up aside, sat down on my kitchen floor and sobbed. Deep, heaving sobs that had been a long time coming.

And then I finished getting dressed, got my kids up and got on with my day.

We are in this struggle for the long haul, y'all. There are a whole lot of us down here who love this city fiercely, and hold on to revolutionary ideas like universal healthcare without shame and fair housing for everybody. And I remembered the great Emma Goldman as I sashayed down Frenchmen Street last Tuesday. Because if I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution.

No comments: