I return to the house of my ancestors. The front door of the stone mansion is opened in anticipation of my arrival and the head of the household greets me warmly with a heartfelt embrace. Already knowing why I have come, I am wordlessly lead to the foyer to prepare for my retreat.
The foyer serves as a dressing room. On the wall to the right of the recessed doorway are rows of coat hooks and a bench seat, reminiscent of the entrance to the classrooms of my childhood. On the left is a large jarrah table, the dark redwood polished to a high shine. Sitting on the table are several mannequin heads as well as an oval-shaped, polished driftwood jewellery box. Beneath the table is a brass shoe stand.
I am treated to a second embrace before the household head withdraws, closing the entrance to the foyer. At last, I am alone, where I am meant to be, in my ancestral home.
I begin the ritual entry to my retreat.
I remove the layers of cloaks and coats that I unwittingly wear. First is the cloak of respectability, its golden silk flutters and flows in rhythm with my movements. Beneath it in pale blue, is the cape of responsibility. Next comes a heavy dark grey woollen coat. Unlined and coarse, it scratches and irritates any bare skin it touches. This is the overcoat of shame thrust upon me by others but willingly worn. It is not mine to wear yet still, somehow, it always finds its way onto my shoulders.
Finally rid of these cloaks and coats, the baggage of the past is revealed. Bound by thick straps over my shoulders and surrounding my waist this monstrous backpack is full to capacity. First I unbuckle the straps around my pelvis and upper legs that are used to support its immense weight. Unable to lift it I sit on the bench, unbuckle the rest of the straps from my chest and waist, and stand up free of its burden. Without the weight I had become so used to carrying, I have to sit again quickly, waiting for the giddy light-headedness to recede.
What lies beneath this is the transparent, barely visible, many-layered garments of cultural conditioning that were bequeathed to me as a child. They are gender, race, and class, they become ever more transparent and less visible the older I grow. Their layers extend to my very undergarments. Finally stripped naked, I wrap myself in the warm, soft gown waiting for me on the last of the coat hooks. I sit once again, already I have begun to relax.
I am not yet finished, so after a short break I begin to remove my foot coverings, there are many layers, overboots, boots, shoes, slippers and socks. None of them are mine, they all belong to the many others whose journeys I seek to soften by walking for them instead of with them. This is not entirely a bad thing, I simply have trouble remembering that I can do for others only that which they are not able to do for themselves. They belong to those others, yet I continue to wear them in spite of this. It is when the cloak of responsibility is heaviest that I find myself most prone to feeding this bad habit. I stand and walk barefoot to the other side of the room, placing the shoes in the shoe rack under the table.
Next, it is time to remove my masks. I try to be all things to all people. I wear a different mask for every occasion, divining first which face it is that I think this occasion will require, or how it is that I perceive that others would want me to behave. There is the mask of the jolly friend, respectable community member, responsible parent, good citizen, unafraid participant, and the ugliest of all, the compliant non-complainer. Each has a mannequin waiting, one for every face.
Finally, free of all encumbrances, I enter the room and begin my retreat.