the stranger

Every day is Halloween
I wear a mask
You don’t see the real me
Does my mask scare you?
Good.
What sweetness could you offer
That would make me remove it?

Those lines occurred to me driving home from work last night. I talked with a co-worker yesterday about the mask that we all wear (for you kids, the blog post is titled after a Billy Joel song. Go look it up.) every day at work. How we never get to be our real selves, because that’s not “allowed” at most workplaces. Well, certainly most of the ones where I’ve been employed.

I had a crazy notion this morning (again) about my hair, that I would come to work with it in braids. This is so not Corporate America, for those of you who work outside of that sphere, I can’t tell you. I would be endlessly questioned all day about my hair. I’d get snide, smart ass comments. I’d get sarcastic “compliments” from catty female co-workers (“Gee, that’s different.“) I learned long ago that I had to hide myself more and more and more if I want to keep my job, fit in, get a raise, not get fired, whatever. I’ve been here 9 years now and play the game pretty well most of the time. Sometimes the real me creeps out from underneath the mask and wreaks havoc. That’s when I get written up or cautioned to get back in line.

Because of my crazy, I was voted, among other things, “Worst Dressed” my senior year of high school. This is how other people treat you when you don’t use hot rollers or wear the right jeans.

I don’t know what the consequences of this daily burying of self are, if any. I know that when I had my son, I felt I was given back some measure of permission to once again act crazy without “reason.” Kids act like this, or at least mine does, without anyone blinking an eye. So when I’m in his company, I’m free to act as crazy as I want. It cracks him up, which I love.

There’s something that makes me a little panicky about how few the occasions are when I get to let my crazy out, to let my freak flag fly. Pretty soon (when will that be, exactly?), if I braid my hair, people will think I am a crazy old lady. Or perhaps someone desperately trying to hang on to youth, which I’m not doing, I just want to braid my hair for God’s sake, it puts me in touch with my inner hippie and makes me feel better. How many years do I have before I turn into Wavy Gravy, with a head full of frizzy gray hair and a psychedelic t-shirt?

Last night my son asked me why I don’t paint my nails. Apparently some girl he goes to school with had her nails painted so he thought he’d ask me about it. Our conversation was just the beginning of what I’m sure will be many conversations about how Mommy is different from other Moms, especially while he’s going to the Harvard of preschools, where all the other mommies are very, very skinny, wear True Religion jeans and have french manicures and professionally blown-out hair. I bet none of them play a puzzle game each morning of matching up broken plastic lid pieces to really old bottom trays of eye shadow, trying to find an applicator sponge where the plastic hasn’t poked through and putting on jewelry that they got 10 years ago at Claire’s. These are part of the corporate costume I put on.

There are other costumes and masks I wear as well. When you spend your life with people saying they don’t like the real you, it’s hard to bring her out, even when you’re in your mid-40s.

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