Photo by Flickr user radiate2357

Last week, I received an email from Carrot Ink, the company from whom I purchase supplies for my printer. GET READY FOR MARDI GRAS, it urged in puffy purple letters festooned with GIF confetti and wagging carnival masks. 18% off all ink and toner with coupon code PARTY18.

Today can’t be Mardi Gras, was my first thought. It’s Thursday.

Followed immediately by my God, has it come to this?

When I was dragged by friends in New York down to my first Mardi Gras in 1983, I expected to hate the whole thing. I knew so little about Mardi Gras, I can’t say how I formed that opinion, but the next week of my life erased it forever.

I thought I didn’t like parades. Well, it turns out I had never seen a decent parade. These outlandish extravaganzas of art and craft rolling down the street two stories high, carrying platoons of masked demi-gods tossing sparkly sprays into the air, doubloons and necklaces and thongs, and marching bands, and flambeaux guys, and the vast roving bacchanal on the sidewalks — oh well, if you’ve never seen a Mardi Gras parade, you really should.

The parades were secondary though, to the real surprise of Mardi Gras, the fact that devotion to merriment and excess seemed almost to be a civic duty in New Orleans. This day of partying was a legal holiday! Kids were out of school! The life of the city is arranged around months of escalating celebration in a way that seemed magical and fantastically anti-Puritan. Ever after that first visit, I thought of New Orleans as the capital of my emotional America, as my spiritual hometown.

Another thing that delighted me about Mardi Gras was the way the whole thing was just swept away snip-snap with the start of Lent. No matter how abandoned you had been just one day earlier, with results transcendent, regrettable, or both, you would now abandon your abandon and feel yourself filled with righteousness, inner strength, moral character, and ambitions to do something other than find God through substance abuse. Now instead you would spend forty days reading poetry and eating fish and dreaming nightly of Dove bars.

Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating. No! Even official Catholic websites will tell you that “the original intent of Mardi Gras has always been to indulge, within the context of Catholic morality and reason, the last day before the start of the Lenten season.” See? Leaving out the Catholic morality and reason part, we’re all on the same page.

All this is to say that my first Mardi Gras, I fell in love – in love with the city, in love with carnival, and in love with a gay bartender whom I later married. During our years together, we returned to Mardi Gras many times, though I eventually developed a bit of agoraphobia about the Tuesday crowds and would sneak home after the parades the weekend before. And I was glad to have children for the natural brake they put on things, the return to the simpler wonder of some little person on your shoulders shouting look Mommy look! After I moved up north in 1999, I only went to one more Mardi Gras, the one after Katrina, which was a homecoming for many New Orleanians, even fake ones like me.

My new home was in rural York County, Pennsylvania, and or at least that was my address. As in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Venice, people there spent the Tuesday before Lent getting the whoopee out of their systems. However, in Central PA, that consisted entirely of eating giant yellow doughnuts made out of potato flour. Laissez les bon temps rouler, Amish style. And while I was sure at the time that this was as bad as it could get, now the doughnuts seem like a communal debauch compared to celebrating Mardi Gras in my one-woman retirement community in Baltimore with low-cost ink and toner, and anyway this email showed up two days too late. It was Lent already. Time to give up printing! God knows there’s not much else to give up these days. I am already living like a monk with a reading problem. Sometimes I really go wild and eat a ginger snap. I don’t even know what to hope for. A Carrot Ink Easter sale? Coupon code RESURRECTION19.

Oh, dear excesses. I’m glad you didn’t kill me, but now I miss you.

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Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

3 replies on “Lent Report”

  1. I got the lil baby Jesus in the King Cake (via Whole Foods , which apparently celebrates Mardi Gras but not Passover don’t get me started, and the plastic baby was taped to the box, not in the cake, damn insurance, but we stuck it in) and am ready to have to the next excessive fete. C’mon over!

  2. It’s no Mardi Gras, but Baltimore’ Kinetic Sculpture Race is on Saturday, May 4th, this year. It’s not too late to enter a sculpture! You could also volunteer to be a Kinetic Chicken. As with so much in life, it’s as indulgent as you choose to make it.

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