O make me a mask and a wall to shut from your spies Of the sharp, enamelled eyes and the spectacled claws Rape and rebellion in the nurseries of my face, Gag of dumbstruck tree to block from bare enemies The bayonet tongue in this undefended prayerpiece, The present mouth, and the sweetly blown trumpet of lies Shaped in old armour and oak the countenance of a dunce To shield the glistening brain and blunt the examiners, And a tear-stained widower grief drooped from the lashes To veil belladonna and let the dry eyes perceive Others betray the lamenting lies of their losses By the curve of the nude mouth or the laugh up the sleeve. “O Make Me a Mask” – Dylan Thomas
This week I went through a pretty intensive training related to instruction within mental health. It was apropos to what was going on within as I’ve been surfing different waves of turmoil this week. From this training, there was one word that completely housed it all: Despair.
Many of us have been in varying levels of angst as the reality of this COVID Lens has taken over our 2020 existence. Far from perfect vision, we are now needing to see things through a new scope. I adjusted to this with varying but acceptable degrees of success but was thrown for a loop about a week ago. Some people from my church came by to offer something akin to a blessing. While all were socially distanced outfitted, I was greatly disturbed but I couldn’t understand why. I knew they had to wear masks; dual protection or at least the potential effort being made to do so. And while I knew this was necessary it took me a week to unpack why this was so bothersome. It wasn’t the people – I love them. It was the masks and what they represented, literally and figuratively.
In our interconnected lives, we all have different relations that require different ways we show up. This isn’t fake or, it doesn’t have to be. Pastor Steven Furtick clarified our different ways of representation like this: “If I were at a ball game, I would be loud. But it would be obnoxious for me to show up at a restaurant or someone’s home in the same way.” So yes, we do have different ways we represent ourselves and often these can be a mask for that situation. But if it feels disingenuous, a question to be examined, are we losing our actual selves to the mask?
This pandemic has brought out some beautiful moments of community. And it has also illuminated disparities that are often belittled and/or ignored. Access and health disparities for vulnerable communities is one. Another? The death of George Floyd. These atrocities have been well-known in many communities and cultures but the acknowledgment of these too prevalent for too long problems has been becoming more well-known broadly. COVID-19 has demonstrated clearly, if one is affected, all are affected. How then could it be permissible, to have life taken and these actions continually rationalized and justified? The fullness of this question brought the complete despair I’d been stuffing down: all of these names, these issues they are related. These deplorable masks of rationalization are systematic of a much larger mask we don’t discuss: the trickle-down effect of slavery that is still so supremely real within our society. There are many who roll their eyes – the mask of indifference and ignorance, and sometimes masks of complacency, who by their silence or “not wanting to get into all of that” continue this particular civilly illiterate, lacking humanity narrative. Societally, we are taught to look away, turn away, especially with difficult topics like this. This is one reason why masks are allowed. At the core of either civility or even Christianity, gunning someone down while they’re running or prohibiting their vital air support is morally reprehensible. If, as Christians, we are taught to love God and, love our neighbors as we love ourselves, how is accepting this type of brutality and looking away or even victim-blaming allowable? The only logic? The hate that is within has reached such a fevered pitch that it has exploded. And much like any abuse, the only way to break through it is to expose it and remove the putative mask instead of making excuses for it.
On my wall hangs a Japanese carving, The mask of an evil demon, decorated with gold lacquer. Sympathetically I observe the swollen veins of the forehead, indicating what a strain it is to be evil. “The Mask of Evil” – Bertolt Brecht
Taking nature walks has become a habit of mine the last couple of months. There’s such beauty and I’ve been grateful to be among the trees, hear the birds sing, and the nearby rivers’ music. Most recently, the thought of doing this, something that has become so natural and healing for me, has filled me with dread. The last time I went for a walk, a bottle was thrown. Perhaps it wasn’t at me but just in my direction as I was the only person walking at that time. Maybe that laughter wasn’t at my being startled but something that was said within that black truck. There are people I know and love who own trucks, but I know they wouldn’t do that to me. And though I usually am equipped with some sort of weapon on me, just in case, the thought I had was, what if I’m not able to record this? What if this is something more sinister and I can’t get away? I love many people who look like George Floyd. How do we stop this?
We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, — This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties. Why should the world be overwise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while We wear the mask. We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask! “We Wear the Mask” – Paul Lawrence Dunbar
My beautiful mask, lovingly curated from nature, turned into one of fear. And while some may think this is an overreaction, my push-back is, that is a privileged luxury that I don’t have, that many don’t have. And the silence, ignoring and purposeful blind eyes continue the societal mask of acceptance, that this is okay. And it most certainly is not.
Today, while the feelings of dread surfaced to my awareness to the point I had to excuse myself to release and cry, another feeling arouse – clarity. For all of those who continually taunt the message, “All Lives Matter” and are silent on this matter, shame on you, oh ye hypocrites. For all of those who say, “I care about you” or and “If this had been you…”, you are just as guilty. You may not have pulled the trigger or suffocated directly, but your lack of action and silent insolence is infidelious to integrity and progressive outcomes. How do we move forward to a better future if we can’t address issues from our collective past that are still prevalent? The mask of shame needs to be replaced with one of Allied Honor. I realized as a result of this training that self-care can be many things. And for me, it’s a call to action. My masks include positivity and care, but there’s also a warrior mask as well. One small but important action? I will resume my nature walks. Nobody should have power over my actions, over me. Find your own inner warrior and mask up! These are troubling times and we each have something within us that we can contribute to improving our communities and this world. Be an ally to beauty, to justice. You’re either contributing positively or negatively, so what mask will you choose to wear?
The mask that you see may indeed be me, but only the me I may want you to see. Hidden pains and insecurities that come out invariably, but if the real wish is to improve this outer world and my own vision, my mask has to be a part of this rendition. And so, I start with my own as with all things, there’s a price. To accept the pains of progress, perhaps losing some in my life in pursuit of what’s right. The mask that you see is indeed Me. The call to do right disregarded or, healing engagement intentionally. “Mask Assignment” – Kenisha Coy