So we’re really tired of the masks, right? We figure we’ve done our time in them, bunches of us have been vaccinated, or we’ve got our immune systems functioning well. Enough with the masks already.
I think this every time I get out of the car maskless and have to go back to the car to retrieve one. I try to remember (all this time and I still forget) to leave one hanging around my neck like a little pandemic scarf so I can just pull it up when I’m heading into a store or going to be around people.
But like most everyone else, I’m done with the mask. As one of the people who writes with me bemoaned early in the pandemic, It’s bad enough you’re telling me that I need to isolate myself from the world. When I’m out in it, even walking a trail, and I see you coming toward me, I can’t see your face, your smile.
I find myself still smiling at people underneath my mask, a reflex. Not because I have to but because it’s what I do. I hope they can see my smile in the lines around my eyes, which I’m pretty sure have deepened in the last year.
My partner Dick, who has a hearing impairment, finds it even more difficult to hear soft talkers behind their masks. Put them behind Plexiglas, and he often has no idea what they’re saying. It’s beyond frustrating.
But what if the masks have something to teach us? What if, in the wearing of actual masks—not only to potentially protect ourselves but also as a kindness to others, not knowing if we could be contagious—we’ve had to drop our metaphorical masks? Certainly we’ve all at various times in our lives donned masks to project an image or hide one or protect ourselves. I like to think that now, when we pull down our literal masks, we’re so delighted to see each other (as I’m observing in people sitting at restaurants nowadays) that we won’t feel we have to keep the metaphorical ones so firmly in place.
Many people have been incredibly honest about how painful life has been during the pandemic, how much has been lost—not least in illness and deaths. Some of my students have not been shy about venting their frustration with online learning, with having to stay inside, with all the things they’re missing. They dropped their masks some time ago. My teaching colleagues, like me, have been in near-constant worry about the quality (or lack thereof) of our instruction, how we can’t do what we usually do, and are the students learning anything? The phrase “lost year,” especially bandied about in education, makes us cringe. We have spoken open and honestly about these things, including to our students.
But over this lost year, I have listened to the stories of people who write with me and my students, and I have sat with their pain and frustration, their grief and loss, and thought, There we are, all of it on the table, no holding back, this is how it is. And, as I’ve pep-talked more than one student, It won’t always be this way. This will end. Some of them have believed me. Sometimes I could believe myself.
I look at my cloth masks now, the ones made by my friend Julie Woodside early in the pandemic. Like most of us, I’ve acquired a number of masks, including some hardy paper ones, but I still like hers best—bright cloth masks with wires to bend over the nose (a must for us perennially fogged-up glasses wearers) with stretchy ties that go around the head and neck.
Just a couple of weeks ago one of my Julie masks went missing. It must have dropped out of the car or my little backpack when I wasn’t looking, and, when I discovered this, I was bereft. I have other Julie masks, but that one was one of my favorites, and I have thanked it and its brethren for helping to keep me and others safe over the last year. Many of us dedicated mask wearers have not suffered colds or flu, not to mention avoided the big, bad virus.
In addition to handwashing and maintaining that 6-foot distance, masks have kept us safe. I find that wearing one outside these days helps keep the spring pollens from tickling my throat. But when we drop the masks, once and for all (and dear God, let that happen soon), let us remember not to remask our emotions and reactions. Let’s show our real selves and delight in others doing the same. Let’s allow those smile lines to crinkle with genuine joy.
I’ll keep my Julie masks for some time as a reminder of the loving care we took to protect ourselves and others. Maybe even after the allergies pass, I’ll don one again voluntarily in the next cold and flu season.
It won’t always be this way. This will end. Everything does. Especially us.
Before that end, I promise to revel in the sight of other people’s smiles, give tight hugs and keep my metaphorical masks put away.