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Exit at Purple
An Essay for Troublemakers
Have you ever read the poem “Warning” by Jenny Joseph? I have always loved it. If you are a fellow troublemaker, you will love it too.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
-Jenny Joseph, 1961
Jenny Joseph, even at the young age of twenty-eight, was carving an “over my dead body” moat in the sand around the mischievous sparkle in her eye - that innate joie de vivre in all of us that is far too precious to ever extinguish. Everything that makes life worth living emanates from that sparkle. It's that dance like no one's watching, sing too loud and laugh too hard, rebellious glimmer that means we aren't entirely fit for every dinner party or customer service job that comes up.
I see you, Jenny Joseph, and I think she would see me, too - always scheming to tiptoe out the back of the classroom so we can go hide out in the janitor’s closet. Skimming our hands over the walls and under the tabletops, feeling for the top-secret button that triggers a trapdoor out of our beigy-blah adulthood and drops us - gently enough not to spill our cocktails (obviously) - onto the emergency slide to glide down to the universe where we can finally loosen our belt buckles, cuss, drink and, of course, wear purple. No need to wait for the canes and the toothless grins of old age. We can start practicing right this very second.
Does any of that ring a bell for you? I can't possibly be alone in having had those experiences or relationships or jobs that nearly smothered the life-affirming sparkle to death. One wrong step, and we were neck-deep in the quicksand of the banal. I suggest staying on high alert because those joy killers are everywhere. Grown-Up-Landia is a veritable minefield of them.
“Fitting in,” for me, is my soul-crushing kryptonite. Things like talking to the fancy mommies with white jeans and perfect nails about why little Billy and Sally are nationally ranked in tennis at age 18 months, any conversation that involves proving my worthiness to belong to their club (Yes, that is amazing that you “went to school in Boston.” No, I’m not going to ask you where. I went to a college that required a pulse, thank you very much.), and any group that requires "ice breakers" make me want to light myself on fire.
When we lived in Santa Fe a few years ago, we were invited to a New Year’s party. Having the New Orleans soul that I do, my first thought was, “Costume!” So, I went on a treasure hunt only to find these ridiculous(ly awesome) black glittery My Little Pony leggings from the Target girls’ section, and then I made a My Little Pony fascinator to match. The fascinator was magical. I created a whole scene of different ponies jumping over grass and bridges. There were trees, and every My Little Pony character that I could find was on there. My husband wore a vintage tuxedo. We walked into the party to a sea of expensive cocktail dresses, high heels, and champagne in flutes served off silver trays. Time stood still. I think if the hosts could have picked us up with salad tongs and thrown us into the garbage, they would have. We were at the right party and also at the wrong party. Instead of being mortified, I was kind of delighted.
When I went to rush a sorority in the late 80s, I was surrounded by dozens of freshmen sitting on floral couches engaged in mindless chit-chat, trying to be accepted to however you might describe “the opposite of a think tank.” When one of the fungible blonde girls asked me what I had done that summer, I think they expected something like lifeguard or retail or, more likely, nothing at all. “I dug latrines in Mexico” was not on their list of things that sounded fun and interesting or made them want me as their sister.
The more I sense discomfort, the more I lean in. My sparkle is bright and colorful and loving and has a heavy sprinkle of fuck you. Being well-behaved and excelling at fitting in are not virtues. They are flashing arrow evidence pointing toward a low IQ, a dearth of original thoughts, and an early demise from boring yourself to death. There must be hard data somewhere about the extended longevity of people more interesting and slightly more rotten than their flavorless porridge counterparts. Which would you rather be? (I love putting questions in the text where I can't actually hear anyone answer. It's like the Dora the Explorer cartoon where she asks a question, then pauses and blinks while she waits for the child watching to answer. "Have you seen the Map?" Pause, blink, blink, blink.)
So, can we take a moment to raise a glass to the rascally scofflaws, the rapscallion rabble-rousers, the scrappy band of minor league scoundrels? How about a toast to those of us who miss the world of crank calling and dingdong ditching, who desperately scan stale business conferences for any sign of fellow troublemakers sounding the barely perceptible dog whistle of, “Get me out of here!” How about a round of applause for those of us who laugh when we aren’t supposed to laugh about things we aren’t supposed to laugh at?
That’s my specialty - finding everything funny that is 100% for sure not supposed to be funny. Why is there no award for Funniest Person at a Funeral? Or, Most Likely to Get Kicked Out of Yoga for Laughing When Someone Farts? And why is the designation of "Class Clown” not up there with valedictorian?
Almost immediately after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of forty-nine, Jenny Joseph's poem surfaced in my consciousness. (Thank you, science, I think I will be ok.) It’s funny how that works. How whatever you need miraculously rises to the top just when you need it. Some shrewd cell in my body took over the steering wheel and gently drove me toward the “Exit Here for the World of Not Taking Everything So God-Damned Seriously” offramp. The cells in our bodies have wisdom that our logical brains do not. The cacophony of daily life drowns out their whispers. But in that moment of shock that came between the sound of the Parkinson’s face slap and the sting of its impact, there was silence. That’s when I could finally hear my cells whisper to me, “Run! Run towards Purple!”
There was no more casual stroll to the finish line. There were no more quaint notions of a tipsy grandma on her porch with mismatched clothes and a bottle of brandy. It had to happen now. Yesterday. Ten years ago. If I had limited time left as a healthy human being, I would get straight to business Marie Kondo-ing all of the things (and people) in my life that did not bring me joy. I needed one of those flashing magnetic-bottomed lights I could throw on top of my car like the undercover cops had in those old bad-guy TV shows. I needed the PA system that goes with it, with the curly black cord and the microphone with the button you push to yell things like “Slow down!” and “Pull over!” Maybe a shiny badge in a black leather case that flips open. But I digress. The sparkle took over for a hot second.
Within a year of being diagnosed, we planned our move back to New Orleans - the birthplace of everything good and evil - where cussing, drinking, and wearing purple is just your average Tuesday morning. It’s the most welcoming, loving, hilarious, authentic, shenanigans-promoting, life-celebrating, and joyful place on earth. (Legal Disclaimer: I have not been everywhere on Earth.) And my friends are the most welcoming, loving, hilarious, authentic, shenanigans-promoting, life-celebrating, and joyful people on earth. (Legal Disclaimer: I have not met everyone on Earth.)
It was the one place where I knew that no matter what happened to my health, my beautiful friends would push me out to the Mardi Gras parades and hook up my IV to a frozen daiquiri bag. They would stand at my bedside debating whether they should wedge a joint in my breathing tube or if blowing some smoke in my face would be more effective. The debate would be endless; it’s a lot of lawyers.
My friends are my purple, and so is this brilliant and messed up town.
I wish you this kind of clarity (minus the diagnosis). The kind of clarity that reshuffles your priorities like playing cards and lays them down on the table in just the right order. Something terrible shouldn’t have to happen to do this. Why wait to focus on what brings you joy versus misery?
This work of reshuffling and discernment is the most important work I’ve ever done. It completely changed how I experience my life. Instead of feeling like nothing matters, I feel like everything matters. It’s just that now the universe of my “everything” is much smaller. It’s culled down to a highly curated assemblage of kinder people and thoughts. An ordinary moment has the richness of a fancy sweet. It has the wind blowing through my hair in a convertible, last day of school, first day of vacation, gooey s’mores on a camping trip in front of a warm fire kind of exuberance. It’s gratitude. It’s peace. It’s 99.99% of your brain focused on the present.
The opposite of being present is ruminating. They are mutually exclusive. You cannot be in your head and be present. It took the “Wake the fuck up!” bullhorn in my ear of a scary diagnosis to put a straitjacket on my overactive brain. I had a constantly churning meat grinder in my head, chewing and spitting out the gristle of day-to-day injustices and interpersonal misunderstandings. There is not enough Botox on planet Earth to stop my face from revealing exactly what is happening in my head. Rarely does my stewing solve anything. It’s just a deep worn groove that is uncomfortably comfortable. A bad habit. It can serve a purpose in my work life, finding clever solutions that no one has thought of, but mostly it’s just exhausting.
Of course, the opposite of ruminating is being present. Once I learned how to be more present, which is no easy trick, it was mine to decide what to do with it. I could progress toward peace of mind through gratitude and empathy, or I could just be pissed about my new reality. Nobody can be positive at every moment. Whoever coined the phrase “toxic positivity” nailed it. Sometimes there is no silver lining. You have the right to wear your cranky suit. Just don’t wear it every day.
There are days when all I want is to stand on an overpass bridge with one fist holding a hand-scrawled posterboard sign that says, “Fuck all y’all!” and the other death-gripping a bottle of cheap liquor peeking out of a brown bag. Mindfulness doesn’t automatically differentiate between productive and unproductive uses of your time. A mindful body scan of me on the overpass might include feeling the wind in my hair from the cars whizzing by or the feel of the metal chain link fence on my fingers. The swish of warm malt liquor down my throat. The sound of horns honking at the ridiculous lady spending her day telling strangers where to go. Technically, that does qualify as being present, but if feeling at peace is the goal, I’d argue against this path. Especially if you, like me, hate the outdoors, malt liquor, and standing. I am more of an indoor, cocktail-sipping-while-seated kind of girl.
Learning a kinder, gentler way to be present at first was (and is still, to be honest) an “I Spy” road trip game of shitty thoughts and owning the satisfaction they gave me. Even the world’s most obvious and well-deserved negative thoughts had to go because they came with a bitter aftertaste and a mild regret hangover. I spy with my little eye... a white truck with metal balls hanging from the back bumper. I spy with my little eye... someone taking their sweet time on their phone while I’m waiting for their parking spot. I spy with my little eye... someone who definitely should not be wearing leggings as pants or fuzzy slippers as shoes.
Nope. Not ok. Not good for me and not good for the world. I am unfortunately talented at very funny uncharitable thoughts. Does it make people and me laugh? Yes. Is it mean and crappy? Also, yes.
I don’t think Jenny Joseph was suggesting that we quit our jobs and join the circus, but maybe that we walk around a little bit of circus in our hearts. That we stop drawing inside of the lines all the time and remove our feet from the X mark of tape where we are supposed to stand quietly until called on. That we kick out the Shakespearean chorus of uninvited critics and that we are not members of anyone else’s Shakespearean chorus either. That we pour more drinks, hug strangers, not worry so much about who likes our outfits or opinions and live out our last days being the best kind of bad.
That’s my plan. Step one was moving to New Orleans. Step two is trying to sneak a pretend square dance troupe into the Mardi Gras parades as if we are actually supposed to be there. I may live a long life, and I hope I do. But I’m not waiting to be an old woman to wear purple.
Jennifer Ramo is a mother of two boys, wife, friend, social justice advocate, lawyer, Olympic-level bridge burner, shenanigans instigator, and questionable decision maker. She and her husband and two sons live in New Orleans and Santa Fe.
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