This was the pattern for the evening. Another youth who likes to play with Curly Fries on Sunday mornings frightened her – she was the evil grandma – only to make her giggle when removing the creepy mask and showing her who it was. Curly Fries didn’t know the kid in the gorilla suit, but her attitude towards said gorilla went from terrified to curiously amused the moment he took the head off. The masks bothered and confused her, but she seemed to understand that these were people she knew and trusted hiding somewhere beneath all the pageantry.
Last year, I wrote about appeal of a magic night of make-believe, about the respite from reality afforded by a culturally sanctioned evening of masks and disguises and pretending. This is the fun of Halloween, and I’ve heard and read plenty of encomiums to the harmless joys of masquerading as our fantasies and fears, indulging the fantasy that we can be something else and confront what’s scary and live into what’s desirable.
But my two-year-old sees through this trickery. We dress up on Halloween because it’s real life that is scary to us. Isn’t it more fun to dress up like a vampire or a ghost or a monster? We pretend to be scary – or we pretend to be fearless – because the non-Halloween world of reality is what’s truly scary. But my little girl sees it the opposite. It’s the masks that frighten her. The cartoonish costumes and cloaks hide from her the people she knows, real people she trusts and loves. It almost didn’t matter if the masks themselves weren’t “scary” – she couldn’t see the face and she was afraid. But as soon as the mask came off and she recognized a friendly face, fear dissolved into relief and delight.
We build up our lives with masks. Everywhere we go, it seems, we have a different mask for the occasion. A work mask, a church mask, a neighborhood mask, a grocery store mask. Sometimes I wonder if I even know when I have a mask on or not. I bet we all know people that we see on a regular basis who never seem to show us who they really are. We hear stories of people who always have that forced smile; people who never leave home without a certain accessory; people who have never let themselves be seen without make-up or their hair done. Truth be told, people are masquerading everywhere we go. I wonder if the non-Halloween world of reality is so scary precisely because so few of us adults ever show who we really are. It’s a terrifying prospect to step outside your door and wonder if you will ever actually see the people you encounter or if you will have to study and scrutinize the mask in search of the human face beneath.
My little girl knows the score. She only wore her own mask for ten minutes or so before discarding it for the rest of the evening. I wish I could get it quite as fully and bluntly as she does. I want to show her the real me. And I do, probably most of the time. But do I show others? When I step outside, which mask am I putting on? How strongly do I feel I need to conceal my true face from the people I meet every day?
It’s amazing all the ways that my daughter inspires me to be a better human being. I hope that I can live up to her standards of naked vulnerability, lifting the mask and inviting others to see my humanity and smile as they hear me say, “Don’t be afraid; it’s me.”