Our vacation in Vermont was coming to an end, and we were about to head home. Maya insisted on doing her own bag when we were beginning our adventure, but she was far less interested now that it was over.
I got up early, anticipating the hours of work it would take to load the car. Normally, I’d get into a power struggle with the kids, insisting that they do their share. But this time, I wanted to get it done in peace more than I wanted to provide the lesson in discipline. So I let them sleep in, and granted them one final morning of fun, while I did the chore.
With everyone playing downstairs, I was alone in Maya’s room. Handling the clothes she had brought, I got a rare glimpse into my soon-to-be eleven year old’s private, inner world. As I untangled her leggings and jeggings, I sensed her burgeoning consciousness. She chose just these things because they reflected who she has become.
Then I realized, the more she cohered, the stronger her individuality, the less access I would have to her. My breath caught. It was as if she were heading off to foreign shores and the plane had already left the ground. I had missed saying goodbye.
I paused, and paid close attention to the cotton and wool in purples and pinks, to take in what felt like a precious, fleeting moment. Holding her clothes, I got to hold onto her for one more minute.
As I smelled her black shirt with the sequins on the front and the white collar, I remembered that I’d had a Big Dream, once, long ago. It began with me packing to return from a trip. I have discovered in my psychotherapy practice that this is a familiar trope in dreams; we more often dream of packing to come back from a journey, than departing on one.
This return home from a long sojourn is archetypal. There’s the Odyssey, one of the earliest, and best, examples of the theme. Here you have the classic story of a narcissistic, workaholic dad, who leaves his family behind to fight some useless war. He gets to have all kinds of adventures, while his wife is living a miserable life, and his son is getting psychologically wounded. Then he spends a decade coming back to try and make amends. That return trip is what the story is all about.
The idea that we have been thrown out of our home, and that we long to go back to a place we can never return to, is even older than Homer’s Greek tale. Think of Adam and Eve.
We not only wish to return to a sacred, perfect place called home, we long to revisit the beginning of time. The religious historian, Mircea Eliade, wrote a book called, “The Myth of the Eternal Return.” In this book he shows that in all ancient religions there is the myth of a central, cosmic location, like the world tree, and an original time, when everything began. The purpose of these ancient people’s rituals was to allow the participants to return to this ideal time and place, from which everything flows, to be renewed by the source.
Most cultures have a myth of a golden age, before everything got all screwed up. A school of psychologists say this is a longing to return to the womb, when we just floated around in the bliss of the amniotic fluid. Some spiritual folk might say that we long to return to the Nirvana of oneness with the all that preceded birth.
Poets and sages tell us that we long to return to a place called the Self. Somewhere, sometime, we lost our way, we fell off the path, we became disconnected from that which we truly are, or are meant to be. Our journey in life is not so much forward, as it is back. But we need to go on a long trip to return to our true Self. As T.S. Eliot said,
We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
And, as my favorite quote in the whole world, by my favorite sage, Mencius, who lived in China 2500 years ago, has it,
Pity the man who has lost his path, and does not follow it,
And has lost his heart, but does not go out and recover it.
When dogs and chicks are lost, they go out and look for them,
But when their hearts – or original nature – are lost
They do not go out and look for them.
The principle of self-cultivation consists in nothing
but trying to find the lost heart.
I mused on all this, as I packed Maya’s socks and snowpants.
The idea here is that through our conditioning, through the painful experience of growing up, we are somehow damaged, and lose our way toward becoming that which we are meant to be.
Was this happening to my daughter? Was she growing more distant from that Self now instead of getting closer to it? Was she losing something that she would need to spend the rest of her life searching for?
And, if this was the case, was I the one responsible for the loss? I certainly wasn’t letting her simply be everything that she was. Like all kids, she could be a pain. It’s the unenviable job of parents to socialize our children. The notion of a Rousseauian utopia where children will develop all the necessary skills for successful living if they are simply left to grow like weeds has been wholly debunked. Children, like all living things in nature, come out better when they are cultivated. They need the proper emotional soil, sunlight, and water to grow into their optimal selves.
But a part of this process of cultivation involves pruning, which inevitably means repressing. She has already begun, in ways that we are both unaware of, that process of hiding essential pieces of herself, just to make those around her happy. That is to say, if anyone is taking my child away from the home of authentic Self-ness, it sure as hell must be me.
But maybe the symbol of the search for home means something different. I certainly never saw a perfectly realized being in my infants, and a slow process of loss of the genuine article. What I have watched is the slow emergence of a consciousness, the gradual appearance of a subjectivity, of a unique, internal, self, in relationship to the world. My daughter couldn’t have packed her bag a few years ago, but now she is very clear about what she wants to bring.
I smiled as I saw the choices she made. There was her box of facial products: creams and makeup. There was a budding woman inside this girl. Emergence was continuous, and forward looking. Maybe it isn’t something we were, but something we know that we can be, that we are searching for. It’s like the appearance of a great work of art – there is something in the air, in the zeitgeist, that everyone can sense, but it takes that particular genius to bring it to fruition. Then, when we encounter it, we say, “Yes, I knew that all the time!”
There is a Self that longs to come into being, that is, in its sense, there, and has always been there, but has yet to manifest. It exists in nascent form, waiting to be realized. And when it appears, we say, “Yes, I knew that was there all along!”
As I practiced my repetitive act of devotion by packing her bag, with thought leading to thought, I, alone in my own private, inner world, recalled Plato’s theory of anamnesis, that knowledge is not found, but remembered.
I zipped up her bag and felt a shadow of sadness. I held back the emotion, clenching my jaw. The more my daughter became herself, the less I would know about her, and the more it meant she was leaving me. I would get to look in a few more suitcases, and then she would be gone.
She is destined to go off on her search, for something she never had but was always there, longing to find what she already is. On the way, she will have a life, filled with rich emotions and thoughts, all her own.
As she embarks on her Odyssey, all I can do is stand on the threshold of her childhood home, watching her carry her suitcase, her back to me, disappearing over the horizon. When she stops the night to rest, I hope she’ll find the magic tools I put in her bag, to help her on her way.
I hope that long after she leaves, one day, she will remember this trip we shared. She will feel that longing to return, and come back for a visit. We’ll talk, and we’ll leap the unbridgeable divide, and come to know one another as best we can.
As I put her suitcase in the car, the sadness becomes a familiar ache. I wish I could know what cannot be known, and share what cannot be shared.
And then, as we sit in the car, and I look out the windshield at the road passing by, all our stuff crammed in the back, my children oblivious to my thoughts, I imagine the day, not too long from now, when I’ll be saying goodbye to her. I’ll have packed my final bag. I’ll be leaving, too, for a home that we all, in the end, return to.
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