We just got back from a spring break trip to Virginia, to visit my parents and brother. This annual trip always comes at a good time. Spring has barely sprung in upstate NY, but down there, everything is in bloom. Plus, after a long (though not very cold) winter, everyone has a case of cabin fever and the desire to just get in the car and GO.
I love road trips. There was that one back in college to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I think we drove through a hurricane. No joke. Another trip driving 14 hours to the Florida panhandle for Spring Break, which ended up 24 hours later taking place in Key West. Don’t ask.
There’s a special allure to packing it in, picking it up, and going somewhere else but here. Especially when “here” is getting kind of stale. Or boring. Or hard. So there’s the thrill of the freedom of getting away whenever you want; or at least, the perception of freedom. Because, as some wise person once said, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
No where is this more true than when you go home. Oy vay. You go back and it’s like banging your head against a wall over and over. A wall hung with a huge flashing neon sign that reads: THERE YOU ARE, STUPID! The arrow on the sign magically follows you around wherever you go. Your old room. The basement. The fro-yo shop that used to be a Baskin-Robbins.
It’s deflating. You desperately grab at what you thought you had become. You are a grown-up, an adult. An independent woman. A mother. A college graduate. A worker. A user-of-the-computer. A writer. A cook. You are mature. You have changed, right?
But all signs point to otherwise. Especially the flashing neon one.
Re-entry from vacation is always tough for the kids. It took me a long time to be able to recognize each child’s unique way of dealing with this. My oldest has to take something — a small memento — with him when he leaves. And then when it’s time, he’s the first one in the car. He can’t face the moment of transition; he has to control it in advance for himself.
My youngest seems outwardly more laid back and at ease with transitions. But this time, I noticed something. Today is two days since we’ve been back. It was his first day back at school. For some reason he’d been wearing around a super hero (Super Why!) costume the last day or so. For fun; at the ice cream shop. And he’d been really, really whiny. Like nails-on-a-chalkboard whiny. And he’s been obsessed with wearing the little mask that comes with costume, even though it doesn’t fit and slips down constantly.
Immediately after getting dressed this morning, he strips and puts on the costume. And the mask. And whines about everything. Especially the mask.
“Put my mask back on, Moommmmy!”
I put it on. It falls off.
“Honey, why don’t you leave your mask at home for school? You won’t be able to see your friends, games, or books very well with it on…”
He breaks down in a whiny puddle. “I want my mask on, Mommy!”
I sigh. LOTS of sighing going on over here lately. I breathe.
“Hon, are you afraid of going back to school and seeing your friends?”
“No, I wanna go to school,” he says in a teeny mouse voice.
“Your friends will be so happy to see you after the break,” I say. “They’ll be happy to see you even without your mask.”
He looks at me very seriously. He grabs the mask from my hands and starts toward the door.
“I like myself with the mask on, Mommy.”
I sigh again, and he’s out the door. There you are. And it becomes clear to me in a blinding flash of insight (or a mental crack caused by exposure to excessive whining) how deeply ingrained it is in our nature to be somewhere other than where we are. To wear the mask. To hide behind our armor. To hyper-organize and control our lives so it cannot hurt us. To take on a super hero alter ego. To play a role. Even at just three years old.
Going home is never easy. But after this trip, I realized that it’s a blessing — not a horrible neurotic burden — that the flashing neon sign and its arrow will follow us around for the rest of our lives. Wherever we go. Whatever we do or don’t do. If we’re lucky, we’ll see it and remember and gently bring ourselves back to ourselves. Which might make us a little less afraid to go out without the mask.