Celebration enables us to move forward

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In "Pink Dog," a 1979 poem about Rio's Carnival, the late poet Elizabeth Bishop invites us to wonder why a city suffering so much want and despair would indulge in so much fun and frivolity. Juxtaposing homelessness and ruin against the colorful pre-Lenten pageant, Bishop comments ironically that "Carnival is always wonderful," suggesting that Shrove Tuesday usually involves a good bit of denial.

As Mardi Gras arrives Tuesday in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, Americans beyond the Crescent City might be moved to revisit Bishop's question about Carnival:

In the midst of profound pain, where does a gaudy spectacle like Carnival fit in?

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Six months after hurricane Katrina, though much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region continues to look like a war zone, Carnival floats have once again been rolling through the streets of the Big Easy. Post-hurricane realities being what they are, the customary Carnival season in New Orleans has been scaled back, but there was never any real doubt about marking Fat Tuesday, even in these lean times.

Mardi Gras has always offered a forum for political satire, so it's inevitable that at least a few of the homemade costumes in the French Quarter Tuesday will spoof Michael Brown, the much-derided former head of FEMA.

Mr. Brown earned the ire of many shortly after Katrina, when published e-mails revealed that an aide had fussed over Brown's dinner plans while storm victims languished in the Superdome.

Brown's indulgence of personal pleasure at a time of national crisis cast him as a modern-day Nero who fiddled while Rome burned. But beyond the case of a public official shopping for a nice restaurant two days after a natural disaster, the ethical lines get more blurry.

When are those of us in and around the strike zone of Katrina allowed to have a good time? Was two weeks out from the disaster too soon? Is six months too soon, or even 12 months? When can we embrace "normal" - a condition that, in Louisiana's colorful history, has often involved copious amounts of recreation?

Our state's unofficial motto, after all, is "Laissez les bons temps rouler," French for "let the good times roll." Pre-Katrina New Orleans prided itself as "The City That Care Forgot." Oddly, given the grimness of the destruction, one of the prominent benchmarks of New Orleans' resurgence after the storm was the return of nightlife in the French Quarter, a district both lauded and derided as America's erogenous zone.

But after being hammered by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, many Louisiana residents - and quite a few Americans elsewhere - are wondering if Louisiana's embrace of joie de vivre as a civic creed has been the cause of its undoing. As the theory goes, if the good times had rolled less freely, and the Crescent City had remembered to care, then maybe New Orleans and Louisiana would have been better prepared for the storms.

Yet New Orleans, as well as the free-spirited Cajun country to its west, have beckoned as American tourist attractions precisely because they answer desires that are more than mere regional eccentricities. They are national playgrounds for people who often crave play in spite of - and sometimes, because of - stressful human circumstances.

Play, the author and naturalist Diane Ackerman has written, "gives us the opportunity to perfect ourselves. It's organic to who and what we are, a process as instinctive as breathing."

Ms. Ackerman's view of leisure as vital human sustenance will no doubt resonate with crisis-weary souls on the streets of New Orleans this Mardi Gras - those who look toward recreation for its root meaning of "re-creation."

The hope is that when allowed to doodle and daydream, the mind will make new plans to replace broken ones.

Mardi Gras, after all, has always been the crazy cousin of Easter - that other holiday, sitting like a bookend at the other end of Lent, that promises healing after crisis.

Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.

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