Last night I sat with my husband and a member of our pod (is there a more 2020 expression than that?) as we watched a perfectly sweet and entertaining movie that gets pretty sad at the end, and throughout its last twenty minutes I cried like my mother had just died. I cried the first time I saw the movie, but this cry was exhaustive, people. It was cathartic and emptying.
The last year has been a psychic shock in ways we may only now be beginning to comprehend. And, despite their utility and necessity, the masks we have worn are the symbol of that trauma. The loosening of CDC guidelines on masking, giving us the tantalizing hope that this might actually be the beginning of the end, triggered an overflowing well of emotion in me.
Scroll through the photos on your phone. It’s stunning, really, to see all the masks drifting by, masks on friends and family, all those faces that are half-covered but look perfectly normal that way. We can grow accustomed to anything, it appears.
The masks have protected us, irritated us, bound us, and obscured us. Now, as our masks are being removed, what will be revealed?
I remember, first and foremost, the masks on the faces of the protestors in the weeks and months folowing the murder of George Floyd. I can see BLACK LIVES MATTER scrawled across the fabric. Those searing images will never leave me, not if I’m committed to paying attention, not if I follow through on all the promises I made during the height of it all, promises to seek justice and to examine my privilege.
I remember the crayon colored rainbows, drawn by the children in my neighborhood, posted in their windows during the pandemic like hopeful missives. The humanity of the generation to come, their commitment to idealism despite the selfishness of their elders, has been revealed. I believe in them.
I remember the post-traumatic shock of feeling a new pandemic emerging, and not knowing how bad or how vast it might be, and the feeling of dread that was all too familiar for a long-time HIV/AIDS survivor. The constant presence of facial masks brought flashbacks of the surgical gowns and protective gear in the 1980s, of how much we feared the diseased, the trays of hospital food left outside and unattended, images that unsettled me all year long. The last year reopened emotional wounds I thought were long resolved.
When our masks are removed, my lingering feelings of unsafety will remain, so shaken am I by a world once again vulnerable to the viral whims of nature.
The COVID pandemic taught us, again, the wearying truth about our own healthcare disparities. Even now, with vaccines manufactured but not available equitably, we’ve ignored the lessons of the global AIDS pandemic by dismissing the need for worldwide vaccinations in favor of a selfish nationalism.
Yes, there have been triumphs throughout this pandemic, like the activism for racial justice and the voters who trekked to the polls against seemingly insurmountable odds. The everyday heroics of neighbors, first responders, and healthcare workers have redefined us as a people.
Beware. There is already a movement to dismiss, to minimize, or to erase altogether the lessons the last year has tried to teach us.
I’m not only interested in what will be revealed during this singular time. We all best pay attention to what is being concealed.
(Photo illustration by Michael Mitchell.)