We are a year into this pandemic and like most traumatic moments in history, it will soon be boiled down to a single concept in our collective consciousness. In my view, there can be no better symbol than the face mask.
I remember when the pandemic broke out and I, along with every other public communicator in Whatcom, was scooped up into the emergency response. We parsed language from the CDC about face coverings and shared videos about making masks from bandanas. It seemed so straightforward at that time: an airborne illness means covering your mouth and face. Simple as that.
My mother sent my wife and me a pair of handmade masks that she had sewn from the same fabrics as the cloth napkins she made for our wedding years ago. She even included a little one sized just for my three-year-old son, Cypress. The thoughtful gesture made the grim news easier to bear. After all, we just needed to bend the curve for a little bit and things would be alright.
The weeks stretched on, and masks became a flashpoint. In my work, I began to loathe the subject. Any public communication I put out about masks was quickly bombarded by a slew of angry responses. A dizzying cocktail of pseudo-science, fear, and rage. There was no reasoning with mask objectors, no cited scientific studies or expert testimony could persuade them - their only response was an outpouring of fear and outrage.
At first, I tried to argue, to show others who were watching that no, this wasn’t accurate. But it quickly became exhausting, and now all I do is simply restate the rules and hope that most folks follow along.
Over the summer, I streamed “Watchmen,” a great alternate-history series on HBO, and one line stuck with me. “Why did you give me a mask?” a dying man asks his murderer. “Because masks make men cruel.” The murderer responds. As the case numbers spiked, I certainly felt cruel toward those around me.
Looking around the Lynden Safeway at the exposed noses or unmasked faces, I was filled with uncharitable thoughts toward my neighbors. I struggled to keep positive about those living on my street; the ones that shared their produce when their garden went bananas, or forgivingly allowed my toddler son to wander through their yard when he discovered a new flower or pile of dirt. After all their kindness, I still found myself judging them harshly for their boisterous unmasked parties or casual disdain for social distancing.
It seemed so easy, just wear a mask! Make it fun if you can! I am always impressed when I see someone matching their mask to their outfit, a true accomplishment in a year of sweatpants and sensible sweaters. When it was time for Cypress to go to preschool, outdoors and masked of course, we took him to Joanne Fabrics and had him select a few different cloth swatches that Bryna then transformed into little masks for him to wear.
He never complained about having to wear a mask - simply accepted that “the big sickie” was going around and it had to be done. Later, as the wet weather set in, his cheeks blossomed with rashes from wearing the wet fabric for hours on end. It broke my heart putting ointment on those soft cheeks, wishing that he had been born in another year, and hoping against hope that I have protected him from the worst of this collective trauma.
When I last visited my parents’ house, their happy Buddha statue had been transformed into a mask shrine, the smiling statue now gleefully holds their cloth masks by the door. At my house, it was much more haphazard, a loose collection in the car and in the spot that I keep our keys. With our stimulus check, we indulged and purchased a few with fancy designs (Doctor Who for me, a pentacle for Bryna) but even as a fashion accessory, they were still uncomfortable.
I hate trying to hear what people are saying without seeing their lips, I hate the feeling of my beard trapped inside the cloth, I hate when I wear it all day at the office, and then I hate the unsettling sensation of not wearing a mask when I work at home.
I hate that wearing a mask has become a political litmus test rather than common sense. I hate the pleading tone in the voices of my health-worker friends who are literally begging people to wear them. I hate the bitterness I feel when I come to a playground and see parents wandering around in close contact with others unmasked; I feel resentment toward them for their careless actions, and then guilt for judging them at a moment’s glance, and finally, I feel overwhelmed by the fear of spreading the virus.
Maybe it is something about hiding your face but keeping your eyes exposed. A visual barrier that impedes us from expressing anything fully. Speaking mythologically, a masked man could only be a bandit, a bank robber, or a superhero. Not great odds really and certainly not something that would inspire compassion with your fellow man.
It has been a long year of masks, and even with the encouraging vaccination numbers, I know we will be seeing them into the summer and maybe beyond. I think the hardest part of moving on from this collective trauma will not be taking off our masks, but letting go of everything that they represent. At least, we should be able to do that emotional work together.
Masks may make us cruel, hopefully companionship can make us kind again.