Who Was That Masked Man?

Another week and this Sunday’s post marks the end of the deepest cocooning of Ireland. From tomorrow we can travel whereever we wish in the Republic and we can get a haircut! We are going to have to wear masks on public transport and are being strongly encouraged to do so in supermarkets. As an enthusiastic masker from the beginning, and usually the only one in my village doing so, I really hope it is embraced. But I am aware that people balk at it on a really visceral level. And in Ireland there is none of that politicisation nonsense happening. So why do some people have such a problem with masks?

These past couple of weeks I have been pilotting a small creative writing class on Zoom with past students with the patience to hold my hand as I fumble through the new technology. While many are plotting their way back outside again, I am plotting a way to get some income through the winter months when weather can cancel classes. Also, I am creating a safe burrow because I do not think Covid19 will magically disappear in winter when Irish hospitals routinely deal with the winter vomitting bug and various strains of flu. I love people, but my more introverted nature is hard-wired for happiness holed up in winter. Fortunately, my husband is similarly hard-wired and we are content with each other’s company though we pretty much tinker away at our own projects all day. We like the quiet life.

So keep tabs on this space when I announce 30 day modules of creative writing Zoom classes this autumn and winter. The dark months in the Northern Hemisphere are perfect for incubating lots of creative projects.

I asked my class to mind map around the subject of masks and then to write a short piece, either flash fiction or a poem. I also sent them a video of Maya Angelou reciting her poem “We Who Wear Masks” before the session as an inspiration. You can view it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HLol9InMlc

You might want to try that exercise to find all the various associations you have with masks. See where your wild mind will take you.

My own mind map was all over the place with lots of arrows and squiggly lines that sort of connected disparate elements. For instance, if you excavate the genesis of Halloween costumes and masking children you go back to the folk belief that the veil between our world and the ‘the other world’ or parallel universe was tissue thin. They wanted to fool whatever malignant spirits might want to whisk away their beautiful child to the other realm. So they dressed up children in ghoulish garb to make them unappealing to travelling spirits. Halloween dress up was all about protection.

While protection and survival was one strand on my map, there was the trickier element of the Lord of Misrule, those Masked Balls so beloved by licentious Regency aristocrats and lusty carnival goers in Venice. There was the secret self that is given license to throw off inhibitions or social conventions for a spell. Then there were the superheros and justice warriors like Batman. Many of those Marvel characters mask the upper face rather than the lower part of the face.

Immigrant Muslim women who choose to veil the lower part of their face have received wide disapprobation in the West. Is there something in our Western culture’s collective psyche that is freaked out by not seeing a person’s mouth? We don’t all have to lip read after all! If we consider eyes as the mirror of the soul and you can see a person’s eyes with an upper mask, what social cues are we missing when a person masks the lower face?

Some human beings are gifted at dissembling, for projecting a ‘false face’ even when not wearing a physical mask. So why so much resistance, when wearing a mask can be a matter of life or death for some individuals?

I will let you walk around your own mental labyrinth on the subject. My students came up with very individual ways of entering into that maze. See where it takes you and what revelations await you.

In the meantime, the weekly poem…

 
“Who Was That Masked Man?”
 
Halloween tricksters about!
Hide your beautiful children!
Let them remain unseen
in costumes of Skeletor or Spiderman.
 
Here promenades the Plague Doctor
in our own version of divine commedia dell’arte,
nose full of bitter herbs
masking the stench of destruction.
 
We laugh. We drink.
We dance at the Masked Ball.
At midnight, we unmask our fear of desolation,
left standing, holding our secret selves.
 
We wait for the Lone Ranger and Tonto
to Heighho, Silver! Away!
They ride off to happy end another week’s
episode of injustice.
 
Take up your facial shield and buckler.
If you can see the smile
in the whites of their eyes,
you are standing too close.
 
Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.
Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels as the Lone Ranger and Tonto in the TV series that ran from 1949-1957 on US television

I will leave you with my own pandemic face mask anecdote. We needed to get some items from the town 20km over. As we were there already, we picked up some items from the supermarket and used the post office that shares houseroom with the market. I know the postmaster by name and greeted him. When he saw me wearing the mask he queried, “Customer of Bandit?”

We had a companiable laugh.

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