Learning to Unmask

Learning to unmask hurts …. I’m brave, but I need smiles.


Learning to unmask hurts. It’s vulnerable. Vulnerable. I’m still walking that out from divorce, from the abuse. Imprints. Once barriers are up, it’s hard to take them down. Once a bandage comes off a wound, what’s beneath needs time to recover.

I’ve seen the pictures of front line workers, ads of soap companies, showing beauty there. Lines are etched on their faces, the rashes and redness. No one is smiling, at least none of the ones I’ve seen. I’ve had rashes, some momentary lines. I’m brave too, but I need smiles.

We were told to shift from personal to professional mask; offered face shields for front end staff.

Protection, but also another barrier and barriers are hard to overcome. Memory lives a long time. I remember living in abuse, doubts, uncertainty, questioning reality in my day to day activities. Watching for invisible dangers. I see that look on some of the vulnerable people coming to shop.

They haven’t lived this before. What is this place? Fear. Are we shielded or shielding?

I recognize crisis, the kind that goes on a long time, long enough it becomes normal. I watch myself switching gears, remembering and moving to cope with unnatural things. Telling myself I’m fine now, but when it ends, what? Unmasking is hard. Unavoidably the fabric or paper thin barriers takes note daily. Crisis leaves a mark. I see it in the soap commercial,  glimpses of myself. Red hands, allergic face. Heroes of the front end. I think of the hidden heroes and the masks they have to wear.

At work, I move my mouth behind paper, trying not to tip plastic as I gesture. No one can hear me. They move in close. I don’t like this shield. My work area is small and blocked out, lines for standing, marking distance. Mask and shield, a box within a box, they make me choke. I have to shout. Worry about giving myself a sore throat. I struggle to communicate, to connect, to distance and draw near. To let people hear without overstepping bounds. Beneath the plastic, my voice is muffled even to myself. I suck air and try to talk beneath the edge.

This rough dance reminds me of the past. Blocked within a framed image. Back to bathroom. Box within a box. Saccharin words put to lewd gestures form an assault on eyes and ears, singsong thrashes of insult, word and movement described to me later as twerking on the wall. Just memories of fear. They twitch to life here in our distancing. Its odd dance, approach, withdraw. Within my box, behind my mask, memory revived by movements, slightly askew. Isolated shoppers, thanking me for a card swipe, unlocking a screen, removing an item, matching a price. And cleaning, always cleaning. Swipe and wipe, run, repeat. The hours pass. Waiting in lines and making lines on the floor. Speaking silent words into my isolation. Mouth moves. Eyes smile. I attempt gratitude to those who thank me for showing up, for being there so they can shop.

A month now, we’ve been self-distancing, isolating just enough to ward off infection and any chance we may spread it. Locked in our houses, distanced in lines, we feel the weight of space, a need to break free. We wear masks, let our eyes speak. We struggle to make sense of the time and all it asks of us. We stand back and say “stay safe” as our leave-taking. 

Not everyone copes well. Reactions vary. Emotions are tangible. It’s all there. Stress. Doubt. Anger. Relief. Those who are angry even about little things, not enough of this or that, not able to get what they want without waiting, too many lines and empty shelves. Others fearful, knowing lines and emptiness represent danger as well as safety. Afraid for themselves, their family, people and places they work. They shrink into themselves, become only eyes above the mask.

Surprisingly, there are the bold ones. Some have masks, some don’t. They come regularly, taking it in stride, generously shopping for neighbours, friends, family; anyone who can’t get out. The givers who smile and do what’s needed because they always have.  I like them best and wish there were more of them. 

Lately, there are people full of suspicion and resentment. They have had enough and don’t trust it will end. They push against the masks, the distancing, and rules. They vent, “This is a ploy to get our rights and freedoms”. “Things will never be the same.”

Conspiracy is a dance I’d rather not engage. I’ve had my dance. Its imprint still presses on me. I distance. I hold my ground. A few times I shrug and say, “they never were.” Try to keep it light. I don’t now how things will end.  I worry some days how resentment will react. Mood and needs tangible, tensed. I’ve been here before. I feel the danger. My body remembers. It scares me. I shiver inside and know I’m not cold.

Resentment is dangerous and when it rises can take out a family, a community, a world. I pray for peace, but I’ve done that before. Abuse of power always starts small. It is a virus like the one we hope to avoid.

In the midst of it, I try to care for the vulnerable. The fearful. I listen, I hope with some grace, and I wonder about what will come.  

At home, I write … this is my third rewrite. It’s far from perfect. A little more sleep would have been nice, but tired is the new normal. Today will bring what it brings. I will try to wear the masks required, and take them off gracefully again at day’s end. Look for peace. See what I find. Another quiet night, another painting, some poetry or prose.

Isolated from the world, peace is good, but I hate alone.

Here. Now.

Unmasked. I feel un:homed. And what am I going to do about that?



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