Thinking about masks and general topsy-turviness

I’ve been thinking a lot about masks recently, and that leads me to think about how topsy-turvy our world has become.

With masks, that quality of upside-down-ness is literal. Before this, a mask would be used to, you know, mask; to hide, to camouflage, to pretend, to imagine, to sneak, to rob, to intimidate, and to play. It was self-protective, yes, because it allowed you, the wearer, to pretend to be someone else; it allowed you to act as if you really were different. It also was aggressive — how would a western bad guy hold up a bank or a desperado jump on a train without one?

But when masks didn’t cover your whole face, they covered the top of it. Your eyes would peer or glare or leer through the eye holes, the mask would cover enough of your face to make you harder to identify, and your nose and mouth would be free.

The mask would liberate you of constraint.

Now, though, masks are different. I’ve been trying to figure out why the word mask has started to bother me so much, and I finally realized what the trouble is. The things we wear today, in this covid world, are less masks than they are muzzles.

They are upside-down versions of the older kind of masks.

They hold in our voices. They constrain our breathing. They make it hard for us to read other people’s expressions. They are a public manifestation of fear.

Please do not misunderstand. I know that we should wear masks. It is vitally important that we wear them. We protect other people, even more than we protect ourselves, when we wear them, we are told, and other people protect us. It is sign that we understand the seriousness of the situation we’re in, and that we fully intend to do our best to protect each other and ourselves.

The old style of masks could be beautiful, fantastical, evocative, and romantic; they also could be funny, or silly. They could be elegant, and they could be expensive. They could be works of art; if you want to see what I mean, google the masks of the Venetian carnival.

But, according to the Washington Post, the human desire to make art out of need, to silk-purse that sow’s ear, is coming through again.

Artists are starting to make lovely masks, polemicists are making message-laden ones, and artisans are fashioning pieces that look and feel good (at least as compared to the faux-surgical ones. Low bar, I know). The need to create something out of very little, the need to beautify — in Jewish terms, to engage in hiddur mitzvah, making the performance of a mitzvah (in this case, wearing a mask, which can be defined as a secular civic mitzvah) into an act of beauty and a work of art.

I look forward to the day when masks are no longer necessary. When we can be open and straightforward and honest with each other, so that we no longer  need metaphoric masks. When we do not have to fear the virus that is indifferent to the harm it causes and can float from an infected person to a soon-to-be-infected other, so that the masks that cover our mouths and noses no longer are necessary. I look forward to breathing fresh unmask-filtered air. I look forward to walking outside with no face covering and no guilt or shame.

But until then, I look forward to finding the prettiest or most glamorous or silliest or softest mask there is, and I can’t wait to see yours.

Stay safe and stay sane.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)