Beyond Fat Tuesday

In my family this is a sacred time of the year, and not directly because of Jesus, Christianity or Ash Wednesday.

But kind of.

It’s because of Mardi Gras.

Both of my parents grew up in New Orleans (well, my mom in Metairie) and both sides of the family pretty heavily celebrate Fat Tuesday. As well as having particular significance to my family, as two of our family’s ancestral deities, my Aunt Judy Porter Beier and her father, my Papa P. Papa Preston Porter, passed away in the wee hours of Mardi Gras night/Ash Wednesday morning, many years apart, both at age 64…the day itself is a holiday for the whole city and outlying areas (I think). There are parades and balls for weeks leading up to this major main event. Which turns out isn’t really the main event, but the precursor.

For Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday in French, is the day before Ash Wednesday, or the first day of Lent, as recognized in Catholicism and some of the other Christian religions. Lent symbolizes the 40 days Jesus wandered the desert before he was crucified and resurrected on Easter Sunday, as the story goes.

During Lent the faithful were to ceremonially fast, as Jesus did when in the desert. Sometimes this was done by literal fasting of certain foods and sometimes, as is more common today, by renouncing something meaningful or a particular vice, to symbolize and facilitate an experience of sacrifice as Jesus experienced on his journey towards his upcoming transformation. As the story goes.

The day before Lent is also called Shrove Tuesday, after the Christian practice of “shriving,” or confessing their sins and receiving absolution from a priest before entering the sacred time of sacrifice in lent. The Fat Tuesday part seems to have come in as people would try to eat all the foods that could go bad during Lent, making pancakes with all the eggs, milk and fat that was on hand.

Yet another reason for Mardi Gras Carnival time is that people wanted to engage in all of the vices, all of the “fat” that is, that they would be giving up for the 40 plus days, depending on the tradition. In my life and in my family this enjoyment of the “fat” part is the aspect we have celebrated.

To be very clear, our Mardi Gras was not the lewd spectacle you may have seen on Bourbon Street. Our Mardi Gras was Granny making red beans and rice in Papa’s conversion van parked under the movie sign at Lakeside Shopping Center in Jefferson Parish. It was like a citywide Halloween in springtime where magical floats passed by as we sat in these ladders my Papa built and yelled “Throw me something Mister”… and they did. Colorful beads, shiny doubloons, plastic cups printed with the names of the Krewes of each parade and other random trinkets.

It was pretty disheartening when I went to Mardi Gras as an adult. I’m not into the degrading aspects and alcohol fueled excitement is no longer my cup of tea so…but the childhood memories are sweet and what Mardi Gras always was for me.

Yet this year is a bit different. There are no parades for one thing. For me personally it is a bit different too, as I am a different person than I was last year pre-Covid. Mardi Gras 2020 was one of the last mass gatherings and superspreader events before lockdown.

At this point so many of my/our hopes and dreams and naivety have been, well, crushed, and so many of us have to totally reinvent our lives. I don’t hope for or imagine the same things are possible that I did a year ago. I haven’t figured out how to go forward yet. I’m still dealing with the loss.

Perhaps I am out in the desert, or maybe we are between the crucifixion and the resurrection, symbolically. Regardless, this year I’m less focused on eating all the “fat”. I’m more interested in the renunciation, and the imminent transformation.

The shriving on Shrove Tuesday. Looking into what I want to atone for to help me move forward into what is becoming. Owning responsibility for my part. Offering up my self-will as sacrifice to open myself to possibilities beyond what my past experience and limited mind can conceive of, yet.

Receiving absolution to release me from guilt and shame so I can meet the future fresh, unburdened by my past. Oh, please hear me lord. Help me see what it is that is blocking me, what will free me if I can let it go.

For this is the potential of renunciation.

I share this with you as I find it interesting, and maybe you do too. Yet also to inspire you. To notice in this time that we have been forced to renounce all kinds of things without our consent, what has been beneficial to let go of? What has grown in the space? What will we embrace back with greater appreciation when and if we can? And what will we leave behind?

What do I consciously want to release in order to free me from my own expectations and the limits of my own self? What of these things can I do right now? How can I adapt to life as it is currently presenting and be ready to keep adapting as things continue to change? What do I have to contribute?

In this time I ceremonially let go of the “fat” I’ve been holding onto and step forward consciously into the transformation.

So be it. So be it. So be it.

So mote it be.

~

By the way I do not subscribe to any religion or worldview, although I do appreciate intentional ceremony, ritual and parable from all traditions.

Peace

Wisdom that came to me while holding my Aunt Judy’s ashes as I lie upon the shores of White Lake, N.C.

  1. There is no one right way to do things.
  2. If something is uncomfortable, keep making tiny movements.  Letting the fire ant bite me so I can stay perfectly still is not being present to the experience, moving away from the ants is.  I’m not stuck with anything.
  3. I talk to myself inside my head so much it’s hard for me to listen, so I’ll just have to start listening more to myself because that is how the wisdom is going to have to speak to me.
  4. See the beautifulness in people, and recognize everything else about them too.  Perspective.
  5. I can be both strong and sensual.  And I don’t have to cow to anyone.
  6. Love is not rational.  It blooms wherever you are planted.  And you are not stuck there either.
  7. Believe in the signs.  They are teaching us things beyond what we can figure out.
  8. Appreciate.

And she always said, “It really is that simple”.  And I know from  my own experiences that simple does not mean easy.  Or painless.  Just that life is not as complicated as we tend to make it.  And I think she knew this from her own experiences too.  And yet she always reverted back into her “happy place”, the notion inside herself where she manifested that everything was going to be alright.  Which in some way it always is, even if it’s not what we want, or even what seems is best for us personally.  It’s all much bigger than that.

Thanks Great Judy,  I’m glad I can still feel you with me.

Rebirth

…all I know is something like a bird within her sang…

The morning Miss Judy died, the cacophony of birdsong rang out across the bayou along the Tchefuncte River in Mandeville Louisiana, where I lie, not sleeping, in a hammock on the deck of the condo my Aunt Judy Porter Beier had lived in for many years.  In one of our last email exchanges I had asked Judy what Tchefuncte meant she said she didn’t know, it was just a name.  To her, it meant beautiful.

I had slept here all night, at this house that now is the residence of Judy’s daughter and baby grandson.  I came here late the night before from the house Judy had last been living in with her husband, just down river, in a one story cottage overlooking the river that could accommodate her condition as the disease of ALS progressed.  Maybe 8 years ago or so Judy and I had explored the river in her pirogues, flat bottomed bayou boats, quietly skimming up through the nooks and crannies of the bayou where the slow flowing water of the river intermingles with the twisted roots of the cypress trees, blending together into spiny marshland.  She made sounds of birds and sat quiet and listened.  She told me stories of her own mothering and womanhood and listened to my own trials and confusions.  The longer we floated the more I felt I was going to be alright.

…all I know she sang a little while and then flew on…

The morning Miss Judy died, the birdsong rang out way before the sun had risen.  As far as I could see it was still night, even though the transformation was well on its way before I could even see it coming.  But the birds, they knew, and they celebrated.  It was like a jungle spontaneously unfolding from the miles of twisted trees teaming with life just across the river from where I lay cocooned in her hammock.  My eyes open, looking into the dark of the night, filled with millions of stars.  Ever since my grandfather, Judy’s father, had died on March 7, 1984, early Ash Wednesday morning, in East Jefferson hospital in the suburbs of New Orleans, the very same hospital in which I took my very first breath, we have said the smile of the crescent moon is Papa looking over us.  And the rising star Venus our Granny, his wife, who died 23 years and 5 months later on October 8, 2007 at 3:30 in the morning, the same exact time in the early morning we three granddaughters had all been waking up suddenly for months before her passing.  Would Judy be the stars, or the birds?

…tell me all that you know, I’ll show you, snow and rain…

On Mardi Gras Day, the day before, soon after I had arrived to see her, Judy requested, in one of her last legible communications, that I read aloud the story she had written, when her hand was more stable, about the Presidio.  I was her voice, since her voice was gone.  The story told of when Judy had traveled to San Francisco with friends and gone to see the Presidio, the former battery-now-park that hugs the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge.  As far as she knew, she had never been there before.  And yet she kept having powerful déjà vu memories of the place, knowing what she would find around each corner before she got there.  At one point she told her friends exactly what would be carved in stone on the arch above the door before they got to it, and when they arrived, it said exactly what she had foretold.  Even she was stunned.

…if you hear that same sweet song again will you know why???

Later, in a restaurant, she was talking animatedly in her beautiful Judy fashion, when a man came up to her and said, “I know you, I know your voice and your mannerisms, although you are much too young to be who I know you are.”  He had been stationed at the presidio and was sure she had been his nurse, many years ago.  He would never forget the sound of her voice, I read aloud, hearing inside myself the sound of her voice, that I too will never forget the sound of.

Later they saw each other, randomly, in a French Quarter Hotel during Mardi Gras, the improbability of running into anyone amidst the teeming life of Mardi Gras Day cementing their experience of the cyclical nature of interconnection.  And as she read this to me through my own voice on Mardi Gras Day, my sister was wise enough to note that Judy wanted us to know to look for her, even after this Judy body had passed.  That she wasn’t going to leave us.  We just have to recognize when she appears to us again.

…anyone who sings a song so sweet is passing by…

I lie there, completely open.  The light from the sun began to filter through the sky, illuminating the thin clouds stretched like cotton balls across the Louisiana sky early on Ash Wednesday morning, 2012, 28 years after our papa had died.  Birds flew overhead making tracers across the brightening sky.  A mama bird flew back and forth to the pretty little birdhouse hanging just outside the room where Judy used to sleep, where now Judy’s daughter lie sleeping with her own new baby son.  The bayou exalted.

…laugh in the sunshine, sing, cry in the dark, fly through the night…

I remembered how in many eastern forms of spirituality and religion they believe that if you think or say the name of god in the moment of death you will avoid being reborn into samsara – the cycle of death and rebirth that continues until we have learned the lessons we need to learn from this earthly life – and instead be reabsorbed into god.  Maybe I should have told Judy.

In that moment I heard and felt as clear as anything I have ever known, a joyous epiphany that unwound lifetimes of trying to understand – Aha!  She wants to come back. She wants to be with us.  And us not just her family and friends who love her, but US.  The birds and the stars.  Everything.

The whole world opened up around me, alive and vibrant, breathing right through me.  The striated clouds streaked lemon and chartreuse against the dissipating violet of the dawning horizon. The birds crisscrossing across the wakening sky above me.  The slight breeze from their wings as they hummed by.  And I was unbelievably happy.  Like a welling up from deep inside that crested, and sustained, and fulfilled me.  Maybe being reabsorbed into god is not something different from being reabsorbed into us, all of us, everything.  She would never leave us, she is us.  We just have to recognize.  I lie there for awhile, eyes open to the sky, in a very deep peace.

Her daughter opened the sliding glass doors from the kitchen and stepped out onto the porch.

“Neis, I need you to drive me over.  They just called.  She’s gone.”  I will never forget the sound of her voice either.  I looked up and our eyes met.  And held for a moment.

I got right up out of my cocoon and left the chrysalis right there on the hammock.  And played with her baby boy Preston, named after our grandfather, while she prepared to go to see the body that had been her mother, one last time.

…don’t cry now, don’t you cry, don’t you cry anymore…

As children, whenever we would leave Granny’s house, our mama’s mama would stand on her porch and wave goodbye until we could no longer see each other.  We carry on that tradition whenever we leave each other, even now, until we meet again.  As the Suburban/hearse drove away from the Tchefuncte River with the body that had been Miss Judy Porter Beier, my little sister and I stood and waved until we couldn’t see her anymore.  Then we went and sat by the slow flowing river.

…sleep in the stars, don’t you cry, dry your eyes on the wind…      

May we carry on from here.

…la da de da, daaaa….

Queen of the Mardi Gras

2/21/2012

It’s dawn on Mardi Gras Day and I am on a plane headed to New Orleans.  But I’m not going to see the parades, I am headed straight to see the Queen herself.  She lives, for now, on the banks of the Tchefunkte River overlooking the Cyprus knees and Spanish moss of the bayou in Mandeville, Louisiana, named for the beautiful trellising flowers that spring like weeds from the muck of the Mississippi Delta.

She lives, for now, in the beautiful body we have called Great Judy ever since I birthed my son 11 years ago, and she didn’t want to age herself by being a great aunt.  Why not be just great?  It stuck, and Great Judy she is.  As she sits, unable to move her once vibrant body, now ravaged with the final stages of ALS, a mysterious disease that slowly robs her body of its ability to function.

Only a week ago she was still riding around full tilt on her scooter, feeding the birds and squirrels and doves and ducks, scattering piles of bird seed around her lawn, inadvertently sprouting baby sunflowers in her path.   At this point she can mostly only type short texts on her phone and ipad.  There are these great programs where you can record your voice before you lose the ability to talk, and then as you type it speaks your message in your voice.  But Judy didn’t do this, she waited too long, unwilling to accept that no “witch doctor” might be able to cure her and restore her back to herself.  It was only a month or so ago that she was still only seeing an acupuncturist and a chiropractor and refusing to accept the diagnosis of ALS.  Maybe just as well, our allopathic priests don’t have any special magic to fix this one either.  At least she learned a lot about her dantien, in Traditional Chinese Medicine the seat of the chi, the life force, three finger-widths below the navel.  And maintained as comfortable a state as she could living inside her body that was slowly dying.

So instead, a computerized man’s voice speaks for her while she types.  She didn’t want to use the female voice, because it made her sound too “bitchy”.  My mother offered to lend her voice to the task, to which Judy kindly refused.  Judy’s voice is now gone, that unique accent that was a little bit southern drawl and a little bit New Orleans and a little bit little girl and a little bit gravely – yet not really any of those things – just 100% Judy Porter Beier.  I can still hear it in my head, and I hope I always can, saying Neissy, and “I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck”.  Always with a little bit of a benevolently cackling laugh.  Which is beautiful.  That we have to remember her sound in our minds, the resonance of how she touched us all still reverberating in us, even as her form is passing.  How her laugh, her smile, her presence, in our memories, will always be a part of who we are.  Those of us lucky enough to get be part of her coven.

For Judy is a bit of a white witch, in only the best sense of the term.  She has the uncanny ability to know all kinds of things she could not know other than receiving some kind of divine guidance.  In her case the wisdom comes from Jim, her guardian angel, who gives her advice and keeps her and her family safe from harm.  You can think what you like, and Judy knows what she knows.  How else can you explain how she knew to warn her son to not get abducted in Las Vegas, which he nearly did?  I don’t care if it can be explained or not.  I’m listening to Judy.

One of my cousins wrote on Judy’s Facebook page on Judy’s 64th birthday, just 5 days ago – I always wanted to be you when I grew up.  There are a lot of us who feel that way.  Judy embodies a grace that is as authentic as it is unique.  She holds onto her beauty naturally, and by any means necessary.  Her whole existence is her work of art.  Whether you agree with her, are in awe of her, are envious of her, or not – her methods and mannerisms are honest.  As a little girl I thought she was the prettiest, funniest, most exciting person I had ever dreamed of.  What great good fortune I was born the niece of Judy Porter Beier!  I have always counted this as one of my strengths.

We have come to help her die.  To hold her hand as she lets go of trying to hold onto something that is passing.  My mom flew down the day after Judy’s birthday when we got the call that Judy had turned for the worse.  My sister drove 12 hours yesterday, by herself, without stopping except 3 times to use the bathroom and get some gas.  Judy’s daughter spent most of the night throwing up with her baby son, not because she was in a Mardi Gras parade yesterday or even because they have a stomach flu, we don’t think, we think it is because of nerves.

For our grandfather, Judy and my mother’s father Preston Servos Porter, died in the wee hours of the morning the day after Mardi Gras Day, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  He was 64.  And he could have been arguably the king of the Mardi Gras, at least to us.  We grew up going to the parades on Veterans Highway in Metairie, sitting in little wooden box seats my papa built atop ladders so we could see the floats above the crowds.   Our mamas could stand behind us and smile at the men to throw us beads.  And we had the prettiest mamas around, so we got lots of beads.

I knew nothing of the other side of Mardi Gras until I got older, and must say, was pretty disillusioned.  My childhood Mardi Gras was all family and fun and love.  My granny was purple, my mama was green, Judy was gold.  Papa P. Papa Porter, our grandfather, would bring his conversion van to the Lakeside Shopping Center and park it under the big movie sign so we would know where to find it.  My granny would cook red beans and rice and we would stay all day.  And as this Mardi Gras sun rises and Judy is 64 and dying, we all feel the writing is on the wall.  We have all come to help her die, to hold her hand as she leaves this Judy Porter Beier body that has stopped working.  And yet we will always remember her exactly as she always was.  Alive.

I feel ready for this as I sit here writing on an airplane and yet I am comforted by playing with words, trying to hold this in my hand like I can control it, the reality of it still in the future.  She is still here for me to muse about.  Yet at this point she has surrendered, her body has gone to a place where she knows now it isn’t coming back.  No amount of money, or doctor, or love is going to change that.  She jokes about this in her playful way of attuning to the humor in everything, illuminating the comedy in this tragedy in what my mom, her older sister, would call typical Judy fashion.  “Have we figured out how we’re going to kill me?”

Why not laugh?  Why not be great?  It’s happening anyway and we may as well go through it with joy.  Because this is our life and as far as we are able to know it may be our only one.  Even if it’s not, why waste this precious moment?  No rehearsal, this is it.

We are not going to have a funeral, we are going to do it here and now while Judy is alive. Honor her now while she can be present, taking the jazz funeral ideal to another level.  Instead of lamenting her stay of only 64 years we will give praise for all she has done in that time.  And she has made a good go of it.  We have been concerned that she has been in denial about her illness for the past few years, that she is not embracing death.  And yet she lived with hope the whole time and never gave up in fear.  With a disease like this there was nothing that could have been done anyway, it has always been a matter of time.

This whole time Judy has been embracing life.  Up until there is no choice but to embrace death too.  My little sister has recently moved to the south herself and has taken up singing a country song that urges us to “Live like you were dying”.  She sings it to me when I get stuck in my own personal dramas and fears, to put things in perspective.  And when I look at Judy I am reminded, even in the face of death, to live like you were living.  And what great good fortune it is to born the niece of Judy Porter Beier.  May I carry on from here.