When I was in the sixth grade, the teacher asked the class, “If you could be anything you wanted to be, what would you be?”  I instantly shot my hand in the air (I was obnoxious like that), and shouted out:  “A saloon hall girl!”  The kid next to me yelled out, “Outlaw!”  The teacher rolled her eyes and sighed in disgust.  She was aiming for answers like fireman and doctor.  She was trying to teach us that we could reach whatever goals we could dream up.  Unfortunately for her, she failed to take into account that as children our dreams are as yet uncensored.  When we play make-believe as children, our imaginations have not yet been completely imprisoned by the mores and “good” values of the culture we are raised in.  As children, the possibilities really are endless.

Saloon hall girl?  Sure, think about it.  In the old western movies, saloon hall girls were the ones who got to drink and smoke, and laugh too loud, and play cards with the men at night when they were out having fun.  Saloon hall girls were uncensored.  They weren’t uptight like the other women, and they seemed to have way more fun.  Now, remember that I was in the sixth grade and didn’t really understand what saloon hall girls actually did for a living.  All I saw was women living free to do whatever they wanted.  Sure, the other women didn’t like them, but to me it seemed like all the fun they were having would make up for that.  They all lived together, like one big slumber party, and got to stay up late. What’s not to like?

The kid who wanted to be an outlaw was watching the same movies and tv shows that I was watching.  He wanted to be an outlaw for many of the same reasons I wanted to be a saloon hall girl.  Outlaws didn’t have to work; they rode horses all day, camped out at night, and just hung out with their friends.  Sometimes they would rob a train or a bank, and that seemed like a pretty fun game to him.   He didn’t really take into account all the social implications of that behavior, it just seemed like a cool way to pass the time.  (By the way, for the rest of the school year that poor kid never raised his hand again!)

Were we bad kids?  Not at all.  At the time I was the world’s biggest teacher pleaser.  I would have never blurted out an answer like that if I’d known the reaction I would get.  I was just being honest.  I learned two things in that moment.  First, I learned that wanting to be a saloon hall girl is BAD.  After thinking real hard about that, I realized that I still really wanted to be a saloon hall girl.  So the second thing I learned is that I was bad.  This lesson clearly was not going according to the teacher’s plan book.

Many years have passed since the sixth grade, but I’ve never forgotten that moment.  It was the day that I learned that I had what some might call “darker impulses.”  I learned that I wanted things I shouldn’t want, and liked things I shouldn’t like.  It wasn’t until years later, though, that I finally accepted that fact about myself, and began to learn how to balance the light and the dark sides of myself.

We all have a dark side.  We all have days when we really want to poke someone’s eye out, or have inappropriate sex, or eat lots of cookies, or dress up like a hootchie mama and go turn some heads.  We have days when we wish we could actually say the things we’re thinking.  But we don’t.  We bottle up those impulses because we need to be nice so that we feel good about ourselves.  We all really need to feel good about ourselves, so often we pretend (even to ourselves) that these impulses don’t really exist.  But they do.  And as Jung taught us, if we repress impulses we think are bad, they will come back to wreak havoc in our pure little lives.

Which is why Mardi Gras was invented.  Mardi Gras is a festival that is a tradition in Catholic countries.  It comes right before Lent, a 40-day period of fasting during which good Christians give up sensual pleasures to spiritually prepare for the annual crucifixion (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ.  Mardi Gras is French for “Fat Tuesday.”  We Americans are most familiar with the French term because New Orleans happens to be a French-speaking town (and also very Catholic).   Rio de Janeiro is also very Catholic, and in Brazil the same festival is called Carnaval.  In England the day is called Shrove Tuesday (because it’s the day you get shriven, or forgiven for your sins, before Lent begins).  In England, Shrove Tuesday is also Pancake Day, the day people eat lots and lots of pancakes to use up all the eggs and cream and butter they won’t get to eat during lent.  Those Brits really know how to live it up, don’t they?    But I digress.

As I was saying, we all have a dark side.  It is part of who we are, and no amount of fasting or pretending will ever eliminate those impulses.  Nor would we want to.  Our darker impulses, our angry side, our violent tendencies, our sensual fantasies, all give color to our lives.  They are where much of our strength resides.  (Even Luke Skywalker got much of his power from the Dark Side, remember?)  If we were to lose the dark side of our personalities, we would be one-dimensional and ineffective. Our lives would be boring and dull, and possibly meaningless.  Can you imagine a life without pancakes and sex?

Today, in the spirit of Mardi Gras, I encourage you to take a good look at your own dark side, the parts of yourself that embarrass you, that you struggle with, that you are ashamed to admit.  I encourage you to embrace those parts of yourself, and to begin to see them in a positive aspect.   Instead of being ashamed of your darker impulses, be grateful for them, for they are part of what make you such a well-rounded and beautiful person.  Learn to love your inner hootchie mama, because she just might lead you down paths the little good girl would never choose.  And oh, what adventures lie down that road!

Valerie Saurer is a former saloon hall girl and eye-poker, who now eats plenty of pancakes whenever she feels like it at her home in Merritt Island, Florida.