The story of Lyle Mathews by Lydia Golden
Her name was Lyle Mathews. She was born and raised in uptown New Orleans where she spent all but the last 4 years of her life. She wasn’t shy. At introductions she would shrug off inquiries as to the gender of her name saying only that she was named after an author of some repute in her family tree. And, if you were an intrigued and willing listener, you would hear that she grew up in the shadow of a bygone era, where the story of squandered wealth was often told. Then she might retell it for you, as an explanation of how circumstances could possibly be such that she was not really a princess after all, in a world where others, clearly, were royals.
I use the past tense in writing about her and notice that though she died at 40, over 16 years ago now, she lives still, for me, a mythical queen among queens.
Then, Lyle was an ordinary massage therapist and mom who moved here to Ojai, California, to be more involved in the healing arts, after a diagnosis of breast cancer, which was in remission when she moved.
But she was also an amazingly inventive artist whose own intricate work had taken a back seat to her ex- husband’s work, cartoonist Bunny Mathews, and her two children’s needs. Back in her youth in New Orleans she had partied hard with some of the best musicians and artists of the day and dearly loved the ways and unique expressions of the people of New Orleans. Her work reflected the vibrancy of her city, and her love and understanding of some of what drives the people there.
During her illness her art and self expression became of utmost importance to her. For Lyle, and other New Orleanians, throwing a great party is an expression of healing voodoo, getting your mojo workin’, so to speak. We celebrated a couple of Mardi Gras at her home with her before her recurrence. She introduced her talented musician friends to the Mardi Gras music and they took to it like ducks to water. Lyle never gave up on wanting to live and expressing her joie de vivre and so the Mardi Gras became a creative focus for her, and an opportunity to engage in life’s energies. It also became a fundraiser for her support during her search for a cure. A lot of artistic types got onboard with the decorations and costuming and so the best party in Ojai and the best Mardi Gras west of the Mississippi, as far as I’m concerned, was born. She helped produce and attended two while she lived. She died days after the second event. She asked us, her hospice caregivers and friends, to continue the event in her memory. She wanted us to help Ojai to Wake Up – to Life -to its pleasures and possibilities, especially thru our creativity and joy. And we have, for 16 years now, after having helped her to die, helped her to live on, for us, forever, the Hoodoo Queen of New Orleans.
This year there were over 60 volunteers bringing their talents to bear and their love of life to the fore to help create an evening of music, dance, art and abandon of ordinary cares. I love this community that truly understands the essence of Mardi Gras. I can speak with some authority on this, being from south Louisiana myself. “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” (Let the good times roll!) is practically our state motto. We work hard but we play harder. We are not cut of the same Puritan cloth as the rest of the nation and for one night neither is Ojai. For one day in many cities, in many nations, people remember to celebrate Life – to indulge in excess even, before the fasting. In ancient times, in a variety of ways, human constructs of civility were recognized as just that – constructs that could be reconstructed, and as such, different laws reigned, if only for a day. In more recent times, we honor the reign of the fool.
The archetypal fool reminds us to be innocent, to trust, to speak truth, to risk and dare without fear. Lyle wanted us to express ourselves, to be creative and to know that Life can be all too short.
Mardi Gras is known as a celebration of the carnal. But what is more spiritual than acknowledging that we have bodies – for our bodies exist in the now – in our bodies is the moment of truth – the place of deepest knowing of the personal and universal – where we can experience true freedom – where we are Life – Flowing, Expressing Itself – through us, as us, where we really get to know Ourselves and our own Deity. Mardi Gras is the only event I can think of where we honor our physicality together – not just the athletes among us or the marriageable or the newborn or the dead, but all of us – in this together by virtue of our aliveness. Thus the Mardi Gras persists, as a ritual celebration of the fertility of Life, the fecundity of humanity and the triumph of the physical over social repression.
Lyle Mathews, the original Queen of the Ojai Mardi Gras, being a true New Orleanian, knew that sometimes we need communal rituals to help wake us up or pull us out of the ordinary and into the Extraordinary. As queen of the Mardi Gras, days from her death, she stood at the microphone and called out for Ojai to WAKE UP! She created that request of us, to remember her by waking ourselves up and joining Life, and left it as her legacy. Thus was the Wake –Up! Krewe of Ojai called into being.
But it is a legacy that was given to her by an entire city. Here in our village of Ojai we are a misunderstood anomaly. In New Orleans, your grandmamma and granddaddy and entire extended family may have marched with their clubs or ridden the trucks in costume every year, year in and year out, in raincoats, too, when necessary. Or maybe your aunts and uncles always put on a crazy girly costume or beaded an elaborate headdress. And your parents probably yelled for dablouns and fought for the trinkets being thrown as a child might, saying throw ME something mister – throw it to Me! I want that beautiful necklace, that shiny bit of toy! I remember the preparations, the special foods, the humor and delight! What a gift I was given. It is such bliss that I have refound some of this ritual here in this sometimes foreign, sometimes familiar land that is now my home, where “Get Ahead!” might just be the state motto.
It is far easier to play when everyone agrees to play and agrees that play is important. This kind of involvement can be a lot of work if you forget to enjoy yourself – but the communal nature of the projects draws one in – a new float or a new song can be easier to build with others involved. And it is just as it was when Lyle was ill. It was hard to fit shifts to care for her into our lives, but we did it together and it was deeply rewarding. It is an honor to accompany someone through death, to be shown the way. A film, A Friend Called Lyle, was made by Bob Markee, and it is shown by the Ojai Hospice to volunteers and families of the dying. As witness and participant to Lyle’s death we rose to another level of consciousness ourselves, and were transformed thru our self-expression of love and our communal expression of love. And as with the Mardi Gras, none of us could have done it alone. Nor do we ever want anyone to have to live through dying alone so we have contributed any proceeds to the Ojai Hospice until Katrina struck, when we sent a meager sum to one of Lyle’s sons. Last year we donated to Lyle’s best friend, Patricia Cardinali, who has produced and sung at the Mardi Gras all these years, until unwell herself. Fortunately, through Ojai’s generosity this year she has been able to have a surgery that enabled her to sing with the Mardi Gras band again this year!
Once you get involved, it’s hard to stop – I keep adding to my costume or to the decorations until the festivities begin. The creative force of life flows thru me, too. I, who am not “artist”, become The Zebra Queen of Fools in the Zydeco Zoo, or, as outgoing Queen of Fools in Dionysian Dreams of Gods and Goddesses Gone Wild, can embody Hera – whose watchful eye is making sure that you remember to be naïve and vulnerable, too! I, who am not Musician or Dancer, am moved by traditions of Music, Voice and Art to peak experiences of unity where we are all subject to the muses.
The post-mortem meeting the day after our Mardi Gras is always inspired. We want others to know about us, to shout out to New Orleanians of spirit everywhere, thru NPR maybe? We want more people to hear this music! We want to store some of the art that gets made so we can reuse it. We thought about getting high- schools to join us in the making of the art and possibly in the production of our fundraisers. We want a website, where we can display and sell Lyles artwork and A Friend Called Lyle. We want to help F.A.R.M., our new non-profit sponsors, ( the Foundation of American Roots Music) bring back the Bowlful of Blues in Ojai so we can feel this connected and alive more than once a year. We want more volunteers and sponsors to help us make it all happen. We want another film made ‘cause this is event is has got mojo workin!!!!! We are all refreshed. We have merged and experienced ourselves as the One through the creative gifts of others pulling together with a common goal. Fun has been had! We are entirely alive, now, today. And we know deeply that Life is indeed for the Living.
by Lydia Golden