by John Bloner, Jr.
“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” – Andre Berthiaume
Over the past year, we’ve worn a lot of masks to prevent spread of a virus, and over our lifetimes, we put on many masks of a metaphorical-kind to guide us through social situations, whether in the workplace, family gatherings, or at parties.
I need to put on a metaphorical mask in order to make or receive a phone call, just to steel myself for the oncoming conversation.
I’m not one who can navigate conversations without consciously or unconsciously tweaking my attitude, changing my mask a hundred times. I live by Kenny Rogers’ creed. It’s a prayer I say in my mind in sizing up any situation. You know the words:
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to runThe Gambler, written by Don Schlitz
I’ve held plenty, folded some, walked away a lot, and have run whenever necessary.
My friend Terry Evans has no need for masks. “I’m a terrible liar, so becoming the person behind a mask is too complicated for simple, basic me,” she shared with me. “Why should I have to disguise myself?”
While corresponding with several others on this subject, I found there are many reasons why people may put on a mask (or take one off): self-preservation and self-realization is a major one, but not the only one. They can be great for the imagination.
Peg Rousar-Thompson, Racine’s first Writer-In-Residence, offered, “I was raised in a repressive family at a time when appearing normal in our society was all that mattered.”
“Honestly this works for a lot of people – including myself – for a very long time.”
“The problem with this repression is that it takes a toll on your health and requires SO MUCH energy to employ.”
“I coped by reading massive amounts of books and by being an over-achiever in the art of not-standing-out. I became a chameleon, who could adapt to different roles – student, friend, employee, builder of doll houses, young mother- as long as they didn’t intermingle. I was the child who wouldn’t allow their peas, potatoes, and meat to touch each other on their dinner plate.”
“And then my life exploded in my face. My neat food compartments became a casserole. With the little energy I had, I walked to the garbage can and scraped the entire mess into the bin. But I was lucky – a therapist sat with lonely me in life’s cafeteria. She told me I didn’t have to play with the other kids if I didn’t want to.”
“And I didn’t. Later, she found me some friends whose faces looked like mine – think: Munch’s The Scream. There were no masks, no pretense, and no social niceties.”
“It was a relief. I spent several years declaring what I wanted and what I had no intention of ever being a part of again. I also learned if you open your mouth and speak your truth, a whole lot less people will like you.”
A few weeks ago, I met with Joseph Vignieri at his art studio, the Draw Joseph Studio, on the fourth floor of the Racine Arts and Business Center. Joseph has opened this location for the benefit of artists who wish to improve their powers of observation and skills in drawing the human figure, clothed and unclothed. His studio also provides opportunities for models to practice their craft.
We took off our Covid masks (we’re both vaccinated and his studio has a powerful air exchange system) and talked about the subject of this article. Joseph’s background is in live theater, so he’s accustomed to portraying someone else on the stage. In an article on his website, he’s written, “Upon the stage I am unafraid. I know fine actors who suffer from sweaty palms or upset stomachs, but I am unafraid. Audience seated, house lights down, I’m ready to go. I can’t wait for my entrance.”
“Life modeling is different,” Joseph shared. “In a brightly-lit room, among completely clothed people, I agree to refrain from covering my nakedness, and in kind, the artists agree to not look away, as courtesy would demand. Together, we do what’s unthinkable in everyday life.”
“How do you feel about the face you’re portraying for the world?” Tina Williamson, writing for the Huffington Post, asks her readers. “Are you truly yourself? Do you feel that you can be you, no matter the social situation you’re in?”
Justin Glover, writing for The Columbia Daily Herald, provides a response:
“We go out into the world and hide ourselves as much as we can manage, in an attempt to stay safe. In some cases, we swap masks depending where we’re going–one mask for work, one for hanging out with friends, one for dating. Only in the comfort of our own homes can we finally let loose and be ourselves. Nobody can be their truest self all the time. You get tired and emotionally worn down from dealing with the daily deluge of crap that life tends to throw at otherwise upstanding people.”
“For some of us, we can’t help but worry that someone will rip our mask off and discovers that they don’t like what’s underneath. For others, the mask never really comes off at the end of the day, you wonder if maybe you were never wearing one to begin with. And then there’s the question of whether you even bother wearing a mask at all, and just let time and cynicism reduce you to a shell of your old self in the name of emotional transparency.”
Photographer Wes Fallon added his take on this subject: “People wear masks to hide imperfections in their lives – an abusive relationship, insecurities, failings, etc. They put on a mask to diffuse the situation or distract away from it. They try to project that everything is great but they’re hiding the real issue.”
Wes’ words reminded me of the story arc of Darth Vader in the Star Wars series. In the film, the Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader transforms from a character who invokes fear to one that demands pity when he’s struck down and his helmet is removed.
The American mythologist, lecturer and writer Joseph Campbell described this moment in his conversation with Bill Moyers. “When the mask of Darth Vader is removed, you see an unformed man, one who has not developed as a human individual,” Campbell comments. “Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He’s a robot. He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system. This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes?”
2017 Racine Writer-In-Residence Emily Vakos offers that masks provide means to reveal, as much as they are often believed to conceal our personalities. Emily told me, “As an avid gamer and a fiction writer, I wear masks all the time. I play D&D weekly online with my friends and for each of the characters I embody there is, in a way, a mask. The characters I write stories about could be seen as a mask of myself, as well. I think what’s interesting about these masks is they never truly hide the person behind them. My characters are always a snapshot of who I am at any given moment, no matter how complex I make them or how deeply I create their inner worlds.”
Emily added, “I’ve also been thinking of metaphorical masks a lot lately. I’ve been struggling with my mental health and, as I look back upon my life with this new lens, I have been asking myself, ‘How much of me is a mask?’
“When I was younger, I used to shake my hands when I was nervous as a coping mechanism. I eventually trained myself out of this behavior because of the judgement I received for it from an older, respected adult. So much of the confidence, the communication skills, and emotional intelligence I developed were a direct response to the deep discomfort I felt (and still, sometimes, feel).”
“There are times, lately, when I worry that if I am more neurodiverse than I had thought, and many of my positive qualities were the result of my attempts to mask, that it would somehow invalidate those qualities. I have been informed by loved ones that this is nonsense, but sometimes the gremlins still whisper these things to me at night.”
“Finally, I think I wear a mask in my marriage. I am a bisexual woman, married to a man. I don’t bring it up often because, frankly, I don’t have the energy to fight with people about it. I am straight passing, and most times, I just take the privilege that it affords me and run with it. Life’s hard enough, you know? But there are times I have to take that mask off and, more often than not, it’s for the benefit of others. The times I’ve publicly discussed my orientation, I’ve done so because I know there are people who need me to. There are little bi-bies out there that need us old ones to hold space. So, on my bravest days, I pry the mask off so others feel more comfortable taking theirs off as well.”
Putting on a mask can help us heal from trauma. Branka Vidovic Butler shared her story with me. In 1991, she and her family fled their homeland of Croatia for Sweden when war arrived. Croatia had declared its independence that year from Yugoslavia, and in response, Yugoslav army forces, along with rebel Serbs, bombarded Croatian towns from the air, ground, and sea.
In order to process her trauma, Branka created and illustrated a paracosm called Brankovia, where the Rabbitgirl, Branka’s alter-ego, seeks to regain power from an evil general. (The film version of Watership Down was a major influence on her imaginary world’s development.)
“The journey is described through the help of Tarot card archetypes and masks are main enchantment objects,” she told me. “[Rabbitgirl] has three masks, a brown one for her normal self, a battle mask, gifted to her by the Sun, and a white one for when she is transfigured to the Queen of Brankovia.”
“I have played with masks a lot in my art and find them an incredibly powerful tool for the imagination.”
In her nursing career, Mary Nelson, now retired, knew when to put on a surgical mask, but she needed help with putting on a face to deal with the life-or-death drama of her workplace. “They never taught us in nursing school on how to toughen up,” she said. “It was with repeated exposure to multiple situations that you learn to hold your face and move room to room with a smile, as if it’s your job to serve tea and lemonade between blue codes, grief, and guts. A double standard, though. Any number of physicians could hold a resting bitch face for a decade, but if a nurse had less than a smile for a moment, it would affect your evaluation. So my mask formed.”
A few final thoughts:
- What face do you need to put on in order to get through the day? Are masks solely of our own making, or does society place masks on us, based on how we look and our backgrounds?
2. What would be the benefits or drawbacks of taking your mask off? Can we be too honest with each other? I know if someone says they’re going to be brutally honest, they’re about to be more brutal than honest. And can we place a ban on the phrase, “With all due respect?” Nothing respectful ever follows these words.
3. We’re born wearing a mask, which covers muscle cartilage, tissue and bone, and is called our face. It reflects our heritage and our moods, and shaped how the world looks at us.
Thanks for visiting and hope you’ll return next week. Writer-In-Residence articles appear every Thursday at 7:00am CDST.