“Well, it kind of is.” We were making Valentines. I was setting monkey stickers on a red paper heart and writing, “From Aunt Liz.” I had a spot of glitter on my cheek, and I said, “Eh, I’ll just leave it there. Mardi Gras party later.”
The next day, a friend came by to help me fire up my hot water heater, a task that turned out to be so simple as to embarrass me. What can I tell you? I have lit a lot of pilot lights, but I didn’t want to turn that red valve alone. I wasn’t sure what it did. And if I’m going to blow something up, I’d like to take a buddy with me so we can chat on adjoining hospital beds or play harp together in heaven.
“It turned out this woman we were looking for became mentally ill when she was a teenager. She started screaming and she didn’t stop.”
“She what?” We were standing out in my driveway, on one of the islands of concrete between the gravel-patched sections.
“She just started screaming, and she wouldn’t stop. They couldn’t find anything physically wrong with her. They couldn’t figure out what the problem was. She’s been in an institution all these years.”
As someone who’s had a very mild mental illness, I had this tiny inkling of what it’s like to have your mind chewing on things that are nuts and be unable to spit it out, no matter how bad it tastes. “Can’t they, like, medicate that away now? Can’t they sedate her, like, all the time? She’s probably, what, schizophrenic or something? That sounds like a story from two hundred years ago.”
“I guess not all the time. She’s gotta eat.”
I went back inside and washed my face with warm water. Then I went to church, walking in past the basket for palm crosses to be brought in, to be burned.
Mardi Gras is southern. Southern Europe, South America, southern United States. Although the northerners might seem to need to blow off more steam, because they’re all freezing their asses off and trapped indoors, it’s our southern friends who throw the party. In the South, religion is life, and tradition is religion, and life is tradition, all so mixed up no one can pull out the threads without destroying the whole picture. That’s why I like it. And that’s why it scares me.
I’ve been watching “The United States of Tara,” that show about a woman with multiple personalities. It looked silly to me, and I disapproved of how going off medication was shown as some kind of great breakthrough. For most people with mental illness, staying on meds is the victory, unglamorous as it is.
That said, I love a show about how a person is split, and thrown around by her contrary desires and the consequences of their adventures. At the end of the last episode I watched, you see her character sitting in an empty classroom with her arms and the table covered with scribbles, a droop of ink hanging out of the side of her mouth, and papers scattered everywhere. Her test has not gone well. “I’m crazy,” she says sadly. Less and less do I know what “crazy” means. More and more I recognize sanity, which is not its opposite, but its best friend, the buddy who comes over and okays the turning of valves of explosive gases and the lighting of pilot lights.
After the Mardi Gras party, it was snowing. It has snowed so little this year, it’s like we’ve spent this winter transplanted two hundred miles south. It was snowing the pretty snow, the white fluffs that melt on the pavement, not causing anyone any trouble.