Ashes to Ashes
As much as I love the frenzied energy and unbridled joy of “Mardi Gras Mambo” and “Carnival Time,” one of my favorite songs of the season is Anders Osborne’s “Ash Wednesday Blues.” The slow, sad, sleepy feeling of the song somehow perfectly encapsulates that let-down feeling, blended with relief and –– depending on your behavior –– regret, that comes at the end of Carnival season.
Ash Wednesday blues are different than anything else anywhere else in America. It’s not like Christmas burnout, at least not for me, because I’m never all that sad to see Christmas go, and I’m such a holiday slacker that I never do much beyond baking a batch of cookies. But by Ash Wednesday, I’ve run myself ragged from attending parade parties and hosting out-of-town guests and waving my arms and hoisting my daughter up onto my shoulders and screaming and dancing and drinking and cooking and eating.
I was raised Episcopalian, and we observe Ash Wednesday, but even if it weren’t a religious holiday for me, I’d need to mark it somehow. Ash Wednesday follows Fat Tuesday the same way the SDT cleaning crews follow the parades, signifying that it’s time to restore order, to rinse off the spilled beer and pick up the gnawed chicken bones and broken beads and split plastic cups that are littering our lives.
People who say, “I need a vacation from my vacation” are almost as annoying as people who say, “Working hard, or hardly working?” but never is that cliché more true than on Ash Wednesday. We get so much from this town, but every so often, we have to admit that maybe it’s a little too much.
Just as New Year’s resolutions follow the overindulgences of the holiday season, post-Carnival, we feel compelled to temper our fun with promises of better behavior in the form of Lenten sacrifices. In New Orleans, it seems, Lent isn’t religious so much as cultural; I have Jewish friends who give something up for Lent.
I stopped making New Year’s resolutions years ago because I realized I was just setting myself up for failure. But Lent isn’t so daunting: There are plenty of long-term life changes I’m unwilling to make but will attempt for 40 days. It’s self-improvement with a shelf life, good behavior with an end date in sight.
Over the years, I’ve given up –– with varying degrees of success –– candy, red meat, celebrity gossip, drinking, negativity, cheese, flirting, biting my nails, soda and impulse purchases.
Of course, we’re only human, and 40 days is a long time. Rather than face the shame of caving and going back to my old vices, I’m opting to be more realistic. Giving up drinking and eating candy at the same time Abita Strawberry Harvest and Cadbury Mini Eggs are released is just begging for failure, and it doesn’t take long to realize that parties without cheese and flirting aren’t worth attending. Instead of giving up candy this year, I’ve given up candy from the candy dish at work.
And just because the insane pace of gatherings and celebrations slows from Carnival, it doesn’t mean that things get boring around here. There are still crawfish boils and festivals, fun times that –– if you’ll excuse the slightly gross metaphor –– feel almost like a little burp where you can still taste the joy of Carnival season.
In some ways, Lent is a perfect New Orleans ritual because as much as it’s self-improvement or penitence, it’s also a chance to appreciate things more by their absence. Everything is a little bit sweeter when you don’t take it for granted, and if there’s anything we’ve learned in the past five years, it’s that.