The word ‘tension’ has been popping up as a general theme in my life lately—accepting conflict even in loving relationships, learning about being a person of generous hospitality with healthy boundaries, emotionally recognizing the difference between being uncomfortable and unsafe—I’m basically learning to accept the cognitive dissonances in life’s tricky and uneasy aspects. Mardi Gras has been over for the past several days, and the parades and the comradely-atmosphere that I’ve experience during the Mardi Gras season kept me distracted from the internal struggle(s) of serving as a YAV Volunteer in the city of New Orleans. In hindsight, however, I find that there was sorrow as well as celebration being pulled at opposite ends on a purple-golden-green colored string.
An older gentleman who I’ve been helping with his homework once-in-a-bluemoon came into our program a few days ago. An African-American, Pentecostal preacher who’s studying at a local Baptist Seminary, he comes into our program once every three weeks or so to get help with his theology assignments, and ever since I’ve been assigned to New Orleans at the YES! Program, he has usually come to me for assistance. My conversations with him have tended to be long and one-sided on his part, although I don’t mind it as much, mainly because I find him to be both simultaneously fascinating and familiar. Having been raised a Pentecostal myself, his assuring and abiding faith in the work of the Holy Spirit today as evidenced by signs and wonders and glossolalia (the scholarly term for “speaking in tongues”—a term I find amusing to say aloud for its numerous s’es and la’s), transports me to a time when I was a child hearing personal, miraculous narratives and sermons in the church I was raised in. Our conversations take me to a previous spiritual landscape where I knew God before I wrestled with God—an easier God to understand. I miss that God, sometimes.
“Are you going to any Mardi Gras parades this week?” I asked him, hoping for an answer that simultaneously… 1), gave a ‘New Orleans’ take on a touristy-popular event in the U.S. and 2), avoided comparing Mardi Gras to a pseudo-Sodom and Gomorrah in custom with his Pentecostal leanings.
“Nah, I don’t go to those parades anymore. I used to be able to handle the crowds when I was younger, but I’m not into those parades anymore.” He said with a light shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive frown on his countenance.
“Back in my young days…”, he explained, “…I remember the police being stationed on the Rex (parade) route with German shepherds at certain posts to keep the black folks away from being seen by the media and the white tourist.”
“Wait, really?!” I asked with a somewhat shocked voice, but with appropriate volume for being in a indoors facility. I had previously imagined that the vicious, racist forms of crowd-control such as utilizing attack dogs were mainly limited to the civil-rights marches of the 1960s out of a paranoid fear of racial integration and a progressive change in southern society—I had no idea that attack dogs were used by southern police departments, let alone in New Orleans, simply out of a purely racist inconvenience. That surprised me. I suppose being whitish in a post-2000 era makes one slightly more unaware of the unaccounted, systemic injustices of the past.
“Oh yes ,indeedy…” he said, wide-eyed and as assuringly as a witness and survivor of blatant mistreatment(s) re-telling a lived-narrative as atrocious and as old as 1789. “..and we couldn’t fight them dogs back without getting arrested or fined out of our wazoo.”
He took a short breath and stared at the desk in front of both of us.
“Besides…”, he continued, “…Mardi Gras is more of a Sodom and Gomorrah anyway.”
It’s the first Sunday and the fifth day of Lent, and from Ash Wednesday to today, I’ve given up eating sweets and drinking soda until Easter Sunday rolls around when my ferocious appetite might possibly resurrect in full-display along with the Savior. In their place, I’ve taken up running and reading one Psalm a day.
The truth be told, I’ve never given or taken up a practice during Lent until I went to college, and even then I usually faltered and assumed my usual habits and practices, shrug my shoulders and tell myself, “The Lord knows my heart.” If I examined my heart closely back then, I would have discovered that my impetus was driven by a harsher taskmaster of a mental voice whose urge was to make me follow these self-prescribed practices out of a pseudo-spiritual necessity. Since becoming a YAV volunteer, a virtue that I’ve been learning/wrestling with is the virtue of compassion towards self-and-others. This voice of self-compassion has slowly been competing with the taskmaster within myself, but I find that listening to this self-compassion—being driven by a love of self that wishes for me to be in shalom (wholeness), and that doing this-or-that would be of great benefit toward reclaiming shalom, rather than the voice of self-discipline and rugged-individualism that I fetishized as wisdom incarnate up to now—has sustained me thus far when I would have given up on the second or third day of Lent in seasons past. I’m finding joy in the act of abstaining from what my ego craves the most, and in that joy I find the most paradoxical/beautiful aspect of Lent.
On Lundi Gras (the day before Mardi Gras), my YAV housemates and I went to the Orpheus Parade on the iconic St. Charles Avenue, where large mansions of French Architecture were decorated with purple and green-colored lights, purple-golden-green beads hang off from the palm trees and phone-lines, and the famous street-cars closed due to the influx of locals and tourists waiting to see the grand, elegant floats drive by with their plastic novelties ready to be handed or thrown over from these floats.
I’ve never been a fan of large crowds—I’ve tended to, in the past, let myself exteriorly and inwardly shrink as I become surrounded by other selves needing to take up space and breathe the same air. My mind wandered as I stared all the plastic that would need to be recycled and cleaned up. The transcript from my previous conversation with the black, Pentecostal preacher played in my head as I glanced around me—looking at the droves of people, and thinking about the amount of homelessness and poverty in this city that I’ve already encountered, and I’m out here celebrating.
Celebrating what? I inwardly pondered. What purpose does “celebrating” hold? My mind played these sentences in my head on repeat.
The large amount of plastic beads littering the streets are certainly no help to our already-damaged eco-system.
The entire New Orleans economy is mostly based on the influx of dollars from Mardi Gras, thus why there’s no investment in the growth of industries and why poverty is so rampant…
It seemed like Mardi Gras was no-thing to be cheerful for.
The parade began, and I could hear the sound of a jazz-band playing a quintessential New Orleans, jazzy tune. High-School bands were out on the avenue showcasing what, I’m sure, they’ve rehearsed consistently for weeks. The drums brought me back to the present moment and out of my mind as I heard a steady rhythm keeping beat for each of the musicians to follow. It reminded me of the human heartbeat, and how I’ve always hypothesized that musical rhythm originated from our ancestors hearing their own heartbeats. I laid my middle and index fingers on the vain in my neck to feel the pulse.
The thought came. To celebrate because I exist. I’m here. My housemates and dear friends are here. My family is here. My friends are here. Here.
Life is struggle. Lent reminds us of that. My first celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana reminded me that I exist, yet I am not alone in existence. My family and all the communities that I am apart of share with me the struggle of living, but also the breaks of joy that come in the duration of the struggle. Perhaps a birthday isn’t merely a marker of one’s trip around the sun with all the fixings of cake and balloons, but is a celebration of one’s exit from a safe, warm womb, and an entering into a harsh world with a bunch of people blowing party horns that seem to squeal, “Hello, you’re in this with us, but we’re here too.”
My birthday is on July 16th, and since Lent will be over by then, I might eat some chocolate cake and let myself exist with some peeps.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
-Ecclesiastes 3:1-4 (NRSV)