Masking up

Confession: The first time I stepped outside wearing a face mask, I almost took it off again.

I try not to care what other people think, but walking through my neighborhood, mask covering more than half my face, it felt like surely everyone I walked past was staring at me.

I could have taken the mask off, if I really wanted to. Outdoors, it was easy to keep my distance from my fellow quarantine walkers, and the main thing my mask was protecting me from was probably seasonal allergies. But this was a trial run. If I couldn’t wear a mask now, out in the open, walking by myself, how would I wear it all the other, more critical, places I needed to wear it?

I kept my mask on. In the U.S. we were just beginning to understand how important mask wearing was in protecting our communities from Covid-19. I knew this was something I had to get used to.

[Me in a dark pink mask]
It’s really not that hard. And yet …

I did get used to it, and now, a couple months later, it’s a habit. A couple months has also given me time to think about where my initial resistance came from.

Before Covid-19, I’d only very occasionally seen anyone wearing a mask in public before. When I did see someone wearing a mask, my first thought was, “I wonder what’s going on with them?” I would have denied it if you asked, but I realize now that masks were, to me, a sign of frailty, of physical weakness.

I didn’t understand, yet, what those in a great many other countries where masks were more common knew instinctively: that you don’t wear a mask to protect yourself, but to protect those around you.

Indeed, I also realize now that I thought of mask wearing as something that people did in other places, but not here, as if we didn’t all share the same biology, the same vulnerability to disease.

I wonder whether some of those refusing to wear masks have had similar thoughts, consciously or unconsciously, but have failed to recognize and push past them, and so have grown defensive instead.

In the end, knowing masks were necessary made me push past my own resistance, but it didn’t make me feel comfortable doing so.

It was seeing others wearing masks that did that.

On that first walk, mask wearers were few and far between, but I wasn’t the only one. Whenever I saw another walker wearing a mask, I waved, and they waved back, and as I walked on, I felt more at ease with my own mask, and less self-conscious. I wasn’t alone, and neither were they.

As masks have become more widespread, that feeling has grown stronger, and wearing a mask doesn’t feel all that awkward now.

[Four masks with various patterns]
My growing mask collection.

There’s a need to for more messaging, more education, on why masks are needed, as well as more political will, in my community at least, to enforce mask mandates.

But I wonder whether, in the end, the most effective way to get others to wear masks is simply to continue wearing our own.

“Once more, we’ll all remember where we were”

Of course, the burning mountains are only one of many things I’ll remember about this pandemic year. There’ve been so many changes, small and large.

Shortages of basic items. Hand sanitizer. Toilet paper. Flour. Minor inconveniences, which could mostly be replaced by other items. But the rationing demanded by earlier crises was slipping out of living memory, and we’d grown unaccustomed to minor inconveniences, to being unable to get what we want, when we want it.

Shortages of more critical items, of masks and other protective medical gear, shortages that left home sewers and crafters trying to fill gaps.

The fact that those homemade masks with their random prints actually were pretty charming, as well as a symbol of people pulling together to take care of one another. They were also more than a little dystopic, especially the kids masks, advertised as back to school items or made with cartoon-character prints.

[Stormtrooper mask]
Okay, so it’s not only kids wearing character prints.

Watching events get cancelled, one after another, conferences and community events falling like dominos. At last even the schools closed, something that had seemed impossible even a few days before, and then we understood that our world really had changed, that a sharp line had been drawn between then and now.

Things we’d done just a few short days or weeks or months ago seemed part of another world after that, things like shaking hands, or seeing a movie with friends, or making a grocery trip for just one or two items, or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake without worrying about germs.

The increased awareness of community, and the knowledge that you can be socially distant but emotionally close. More phone calls. Virtual happy hours. Outdoor meetups with neighbors and friends, our lawn chairs carefully spaced at least six feet apart.

The realization that all the remote connection in the world couldn’t replace a five-minute in-person meeting, or a hug.

Cooking. So much cooking. The combination of temporary food shortages and quarantine lockdowns meant we all did a lot more cooking at home, and for a while flour became another item that was hard to find.

[Homemade bread, noodles, and sort-of onigiri]
Sourdough bread was only the beginning.

Our attempts at hasty crisis homeschooling were much less successful that our baking. So were our attempts to replace our kids’ friends as their playmates. All the imagination in the world couldn’t make us play as well as a child could play, and all the good intentions in the world couldn’t make us teach even a fraction as well as our children’s teachers could teach. If we’d ever forgotten, no one doubted now that teachers were essential.

We realized lots of people we’d mostly been ignoring were essential. Those who treat the sick. Those who grow and distribute and sell our food. Those who package and deliver the mail.

Quarantine walks through the neighborhood, because you can’t stay inside all the time, each household keeping to its own group, crossing the street to avoid coming too close to one another. Yet also waving to one another, too, making clear that we’re still a community, that we still care about one another.

Painted rocks, left in front of our own houses or anonymously in front of neighbors’ houses, another way of saying that we’re still here, that we still care about each other.

I don’t know who painted these, but I feel connected to them.

The understanding that police brutality doesn’t magically stop during a pandemic, so fighting that brutality couldn’t stop, either. All the many layers of social and economic inequality that the pandemic laid bare.

What the brick says.

Political campaigns run by phone, by text, by virtual town hall. It was an election year, after all. But also political campaigns run in person, as if nothing at all had changed. Somehow, the basics of public health had become as political as everything else, as if ideology could somehow stop viruses from infecting us.

Graduation ceremonies held at a distance, or not at all. Signs on lawns and stickers on cars congratulating recent graduates in place of graduation parties. Also, an epic senior prank.

The wait and hope for a vaccine. The attempts to navigate life without one. The loss of the comforting myth that we already had treatments for all the really bad diseases, that we were somehow ahead of science and history and the fears that had troubled the generations before us.

The longing to step back to the past, to the way things were, the way it still felt they should be. The need to appreciate the gifts of the present. The desire to find a way forward, into the future.

The knowledge that we’re not apart from history, but part of it, after all.


Subject line borrowed from John M. Ford’s “110 Stories,” written during another uncertain, challenging moment in history.