The other face of Carnival

Our family began one recent Sunday in a church pew and ended it as marauding pirates, a typical enough weekend for Mardi Gras season here in south Louisiana.

After mass and lunch, my wife and I, along with our 10-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, donned tricorn hats and eye patches to march in the Krewe of Mutts, a Baton Rouge parade for charity in which local dogs wear Carnival garb. Stella, our neighborhood mascot, balanced our "buccaneering" bravado by sporting a tinsel halo above her canine collar – the token saint in our band of Bluebeards and Captain Hooks.

As Great Danes, poodles, and other four-legged revelers pranced along a downtown thoroughfare, fathers held toddlers above their shoulders to catch Mardi Gras beads, and mothers angled infants in strollers to get the best view.

The setting seemed like a scene from Norman Rockwell, as wholesome as a Fourth of July procession in small-town Maine.

As another Mardi Gras arrives Tuesday, international media will probably do what it always does and focus on the bare-chested bacchanal that constitutes Carnival in the French Quarter of New Orleans. But along with the libertine excesses of the Mardi Gras known to tourists, Louisiana also observes many quieter Carnival parades geared for families.

That reality tends to get lost in the newspaper and network coverage of Mardi Gras, yet another reminder that when it comes to Carnival, things are seldom as they seem. Subterfuge and sleight-of-hand, after all, rest at the center of the season, a pageant of costumes in which accountants become gorillas, housewives become queens, and doctors dress in drag.

Such whimsical role-playing has a special poignancy in post-Katrina Louisiana, as many residents still struggling to recover from America's worst natural disaster savor the prospect of becoming, if only for a day, a character with fewer problems and brighter prospects.

But Carnival costuming, though it might look like extravagant escapism to much of the country, can also promote healing – not only for the spirits of Louisiana's walking wounded, but for the social fabric at large.

In shucking our old selves to try on some new Mardi Gras identity, we imagine, for a few, brief hours, what it's like to be someone else – a reminder that empathy always begins as an act of imagination.

Post-Katrina Louisiana now confronts what many have described as compassion fatigue, the sense that the international media – and the rest of the world – have grown weary of our woe and cannot stand to hear another story about flood-ravaged neighborhoods still straining to recover and broken lives still cracked and raw.

The standard equation treats compassion as a kind of bank account that grants our nation's neediest only so many withdrawals. But history offers us a nobler view of compassion as a renewable resource, a gesture that, like all creative acts, can be revived by the wellsprings of art.

The cultivation of empathy must be the highest calling of our poetry; our cinema; our music; and, of course, the public pageant of song, dance, and comedy that is Mardi Gras.

My family of swashbucklers began our Baton Rouge parade route heavy with Carnival beads, but by parade's end, we all had emptied our sacks of loot, even as a sea of open palms continued to beg us for just one more necklace of plastic beads, just one more cheap doubloon.

Such is the eternal comedy of Carnival – that human ambition and aspiration will always outpace our capacity to fill them. It is also the continuing challenge of post-Katrina Louisiana this Mardi Gras, as limitless hopes and dreams confront limited resources for recovery.

But for today, at least, we'll take comfort in Carnival, that festival of the imagination in which all things seem possible.

Danny Heitman is a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate.

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