Dressing up for normal

Image I love Halloween. I feel a sense of freedom and relief seeing people dressed in their fantasy characters, superheroes and worst fears. In the middle of the day right in town you see grown up men and women right along preschool kids and the occasional dog dressed in red capes, with fairy wings, swords or witch hats and big noses. The belly muscle six pack is built in to the costume and so is the superpower, the beauty and the spooky.

Then there was the woman in a bathrobe and slippers walking with her friends who were Dorothy, Superman and a ghost.  This woman in her cozy looking beige fleece bathrobe looked at ease. She looked warm and comfortable in her costume. She was laughing and interacting with her friends.

What was her Halloween character? I didn't have a chance to ask her but her costume reminded me of our relationship to dress codes .

It's considered fun and creative to wear a bathrobe around town in the middle of a weekday as long as it's on October 31 which we all agreed to call "Halloween." How would the experience of the  woman in her bathrobe change if it would have been October 30 or November 1?

I imagined showing up to teach my class on November 4 in a bathrobe and slippers. Can you imagine my students' reactions and chain of rumors running through campus and town?

Maybe nothing would happen. Maybe my fear of being stamped as "crazy" and "inappropriate" based on my choice of dress, stems from my own experience growing up in a world that was obsessed with "fitting in" and appearing "normal."

My mother used an indescribable amount of energy and awareness to appear normal. Her good taste in clothing and her aesthetic skill allowed her to successfully hide her struggle with mental illness behind beauty and personal style. I don't know if she inherently had good taste or if she developed her sense of style as a compensatory survival mechanism. Either way, the question of what to wear was never a question.

The rules of dress code in my family were unwritten yet strongly enforced. Wearing something a bit different and not perfectly washed and ironed was under "emotional death penalty." A pj day at home, even when ill with the flue was out of the question.

After visiting my mother in the psychiatric hospital I immediately understood that the idea of walking around in slippers and a bathrobe, even just for an hour, was too close to home.

It would have been the equivalent to taking away the cane of a person with leg weakness. External support helps to move forward.  My mother's strong need and sense of style also got her back home and back to "normal." The unsummable amount of energy needed to feed  compensatory mechanisms that keep us upright and moving forward fascinates me.

I imagine what my relationship with my mother would be like if she would, even just for one day, be able to choose to wear her inner demons as costume. I imagine what our days and streets and office meetings would look like if everybody would choose to dress as they dream, their fear, their struggle not only on Halloween.

I imagine that our shared vulnerability would be palpable. I imagine I would know more about the people around me. Would we be able to interact, work and play together with an unsummable amount of genuine energy that now is set free since we don't need to dress up for normal, since we don't need to keep it together?

Would we support each other in our vulnerabilities? Would the physical strong lend an arm to the persons needing a cane and the emotional strong cheering on the fragile, hurt and confused? Would we find comfort and strength in experiencing shared struggles and questions?

Or maybe our natural Darwinian instinct would make us prey for each other, to kill and be killed until the last man or woman is standing?

Evidently we are not ready to find out. We as society spend endless resources in dressing up, in following written and unwritten fashion laws and trends. We also spend energy to posture ourselves, right ourselves, muscle through physical imbalances and disease to appear normal and upright. We put up a good fight and a good show.

The only bathrobe I ever owned I sewed myself in 6th grade home ec class. It was lightblue and clean cut. Some of the seams looked a bit messy where the sewing machine got caught on the thick terry cloth fabric. I don't remember wearing it much but I do remember how inherently satisfying it was to make it.

A few years ago when my oldest daughter was in 6th grade my mother sent her my lightblue bathrobe. She had added a white silk ribbon as a belt. With the gift of handing down my self made bathrobe I knew that my mother felt  that her granddaughters would be safe and strong even when wearing a bathrobe with imperfect stitching. She could trust that her granddaughters knew not to wear it to school or sports practice or maybe she knew that even if my daughters would wear it to school they would be ok.