Spiritual journeys often accompany physical travel. In fact, sometimes the whole reason for travel to a strange place is the spiritual journey. There is no place stranger than New Orleans at Mardi Gras and no venue less likely for a spiritual journey.
A weird collection of symptoms appeared a few days before leaving. I had done something to my half-century old shoulder, a flu was coming on and, at the beginning of February in New England, I had sunburn - invisible sunburn.
New Orleans is unique, fascinating and irresistible, even without the sordid chaos of Mardi Gras. With the gigantic daily parades, drunken public nakedness and three-hundred Elvis impersonators on scooters, a vacation at Mardi Gras is a vacation from every bit of what one knows of as reality - including pain. The constant, overwhelming input distracts from and mutes pain in much the way it distracts from and mutes sanity.
We walked for miles, stayed up all night, drank too much, did it again and by the third day, reality struck. My skin was on fire, every joint was screaming. A large blister had appeared on the bottom of my left foot. I’d foregone sleep, poisoned myself in numerous ways and left my brain at the door. The only thing that quelled the agony was a hot bath.
My friend had a date (either with a guy who works in the Mayor's office or a Tasmanian real-estate tycoon). My plan was to lie in a prone position and moan. It occurred to me, in the bath, that if one must lie in a prone position and moan, one might as well do it in a hot tub and that there must be a hot tub somewhere in New Orleans.
East of the Quarter, east of the jazz clubs, where the hipsters and the street musicians live, nestled among warehouses and little bungalows is an old mansion that’s been converted into a restaurant. It has a hot tub – and scotch.
As I went through their website with my friend, some things became apparent. The pool and hot tub were clothing optional. A giant rainbow flag indicated that it was a gay bar. Gay bars in the South are oases in a dessert of intolerance and draw a more diverse clientele than gay bars elsewhere. They'd be better called 'bars where all are welcome.' But on that night, in this gay bar, it was Ladies Night. I felt invisible forces at work.
A mixed crowd filled the pool and I got involved in a conversation with two young women about neo-feminism. Neo-feminism is probably best described by the Bourbon St. balcony full of women in their forties, all wearing matching faux-topless print t-shirts, tossing beads to young men who flashed them. Gender equality has arrived and that's what it looks like.
At last call, the 26 year old woman I had been talking with gave me a hug – a naked in a hot tub in a gay bar in New Orleans on Ladies Night hug. Decades of agnosticism came crashing down around me. Our clothing happened to be near one another's and, while I put on my socks and she patiently waiting for me to do so, I felt the presence of God. She gave me her number and I was no longer an atheist.
I went to a parade with her and some of her friends the next day, got to be the cool old guy and felt blessed by my new found God. Physically, I felt awful but at the same time, felt nothing wrong at all. I was due to come back to CT the next day but God dumped three and a half feet of snow on my house, stranding me in New Orleans. I went to sleep knowing that God loved me.
Apparently, chicken pox does not die or go away but rather goes dormant and lives in the nerve endings for decades until something causes it to wake up. God woke the chicken pox and I woke with shingles. Dreams of licentious carnality with a woman half my age faded into two days of curled fetal agony. I went to Mardi Gras an atheist and came back knowing that there is a God and that she hates me. For, in my house, under the snow, my ex-wife was fulfilling her part of our cat-sitting arrangement. We were stuck there together for three days with God’s laughter as background music.