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Masks: The child of a Pandemic and a friend of mine.
My journey with and behind a mask.
The pandemic is a tiny bright gift box wrapped in silk like ribbons. It looks just like the one you wished for when you fantasized about your school getting mysteriously flooded or your exams getting miraculously cancelled or when you yearned to have blissful vacations that never ended. You slowly untie the smooth velvety ribbons and slid your gift box open. Bam! Before you realize, a piercing pain sings on your nose and blood dances down your skin. You see stars in your eyes and along with it a red boxing glove jumping frantically on a spring. Realization smacks you in the head when you register that the bridge of your nose has turned into debris, thanks to a flying punch. You have been smacked in the face with unending lockdowns, uncertainty, fear, anxiety, confinement, a nonexistent social life, heavy household work and face masks. And, just like Mark and Margaret in “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things”, you feel stuck in an endless time loop of living the same day over and over again.
The pandemic in my house took the form of multiple vitamin tables at breakfast, bottles and bottles of hand sanitizers, frequent homemade kashyams (water extract of medicinal herbs), a tiny black oximeter and tons of face masks, starting from super tight N-95’s to bright, fancy ones.
Welcoming masks to my life and specifically onto my face was a quite a journey. Just like how I realized mopping the floor is better than any cardio workout I have done, face masks made me realize how much I took breathing for granted. Within minutes of wearing a mask, my mouth would become a greenhouse for heat. Heat like an unwelcome relative would enter the den of my mask to never leave again. Sweat would form on my lips and wash away my not-so-cheap face cream. A suffocation, similar to the humid discomfort I feel behind my neck, from leaving my hair open for too long, will start to build under my artificial beak. The heat would slowly set up a camp fire, and like smoke from a chimney, my humid breath would leave my mask only to fog my glasses. My head would start a tribal dance around the fire as a throbbing headache would grow in my temple, causing me to gather all the reserves of Axe Oil at home.
Apart from this, masks had a personality of an annoying sibling. I had to be five times louder with a mask on; it is almost like having a sibling who would make animal noises when you are attending an important call but just the complete opposite. My mask’s favorite prank is to smudge my lipstick all over my mouth, making me look like a toddler eating hot chocolate.
In short, if mask were a person, I would have slapped them. Or so I thought.
On a normal Tuesday, in center of a busy street, I found myself sitting, no hanging, on the edge of a cliff of unstable emotions. The volcano of anger had exploded and lava was cooling down on the island of my mind. The ocean of angry tears below was rising and falling and welcoming. I knew I would tip over any moment, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to avoid, with all my life, walking around with puffy eyes, tear soaked eyebrows and a red face amongst thousands of strangers. Uninvited stares and inquiry was worse than jumping off the cliff.
But emotions are like rain in the clouds, the more you withhold, heavier you become, and more are the chances it will pour down. Raindrops were slowly starting to drizzle on my cheeks as my cloud got too heavy for me to hold. My hands slipped and now I am plummeting down towards the ocean. Streams of salty tears traced my cheeks as I desperately tried to close the floodgates. The world was about the change I thought, but it didn’t. I braced myself for the crash landing, the looks and the embarrassment. I waited and waited but none came. There was no crash and no explosion because the world hadn’t noticed. My mask covered for me, quite literally. It gave me a moment to myself, gave me a little freedom to let the emotion wash through me. Like a friend it held me together while I slowly broke into pieces.
Something changed. The lines between enemies and friends, suffocation and comfort smudged.
That was the beginning.
Some days when your quota of self love is draining and distorted images of beauty seem to filter into your mind, you tend to see your double chin more clearly, you see more pimples camping on your skin, the dark circles under your eye are panda like and the rash on their neck seems to hold center stage attention. On those days, I am eternally grateful to masks. Stepping out feels more difficult when you want to go down the rabbit hole, but with a mask on it somehow diminishes the weight of the idea and reduces the crosses of self invalidation. Everyone has bad days and on mine, masks somehow make it easier to live just like chocolate cake and a favorite sitcom.
The line to comfort was crossed.
To anyone who wanted to be invisible in the crowd, masks are you answer. I never knew I enjoyed anonymity more until I started using masks. It is true that with masks on, one would lose out on a whole lot of social interactions but it also lets you have the liberty to stick your tongue out during a serious conversation, allows you to make weird faces at people and things and it covers your laughs and giggles, especially if you are someone like me who laughs at the wrong times. The best part about masks, it lets you hide from people you don’t want to run into, like your family’s distant (very distant) aunty who you hardly know or other nosy neighborhood avatars who run a comprehensive interrogation of your life in the middle of a supermarket.
The shelter behind a mask also bought me something else, something far more valuable, confidence. Masks have nudged and pushed me towards expressing myself, as ironic as it may sound, it has. I have always wiped away the idea of wearing a lipstick as the weight of my hidden inhibitions was too heavy for my lips. This goes back to conversations I heard in my childhood, conversations where wearing a lipstick was painted in a negative connotation. I would hear people say “Look at her she is wearing a lipstick” with a voice of sighting something uncommon or something against the norm. Lipsticks might also have become heavier to me, when in fifth grade I tried on mother’s lipstick only to become the center of a room’s laughter. Somewhere these pieces were still very alive in me, the silent judgment, the laughter still echoed somewhere in my mind. And, whenever I wanted to paint my lips, they echoed louder.
Masks were the turning point for my lips and for my confidence. Mask gave me a sense of protection from the world and the voiceless judgments and stares I feared. With half of my face covered, the world would never know what colours my lips sing under my mask. The security under the mask gave a nudge of courage and a push towards expression. In no time, I moved from no shades to neutral shades to bold shades of matte red, pitch black and classic brown. I quickly increased my small reserve of lipsticks by actively smuggling lipsticks from my mother’s makeup box. Somewhere between a growing reserve of lipsticks and painted lips, I crossed the treacherous river of fear and self consciousness to the bank of confidence, holding on to the bridge of protection offered by my mask.
The line to protection was crossed.
People around the world have won tiny victories behind a mask, taken comfort in a mask and shared a common love for masks.
Petula Dvorak in an article for the Washington Post, wrote about how masks have helped people with physical differences in face to go out in public. It has eased social anxiety for individuals and has given people, as hilariously captured, a chance to be “Ugly in peace”. As I read through the various accounts of people sharing their love for masks, a particular story moved me immensely. A 66 year old cancer patient with a neurological condition called “tardive dyskinesia” was terrified of crowds until face masks made it easier for her. Her condition, which developed as result of taking anti nausea medicine to help with chemotherapy, causes her to experience constant contortions of the mouth and tongue twirling. Mask offered her “great solace” as it helped her be comfortable around others again.
In a hilariously relatable article for The New Platz Oracle, Amayah Spence pens down her eight reasons for loving masks. She shares that one of her favorite things about masks is catfishing, which the idea that people always subconsciously imagine the best features to fill in the half covered bits of a masked face. She says it makes her feel good to know that people are imaging a much prettier version of her. According to Spence, masks are not only protection against the virus but also against unhealthy odors of pickle and onion eaters, masks functions excellently as “face blankets” during winter and she says, ultimately, wearing a mask is a sign of having humanity and compassion for others.
Maybe, if mask were a person, I think I might hug them.
There are no lines now, only a friend remains.
We are going through a dark and dangerous time as the virus continues its deadly rampage through cities and towns and through homes and families. In these crucial days, masks are a companion we can relay one.
Be responsible, wear a mask.
I hope we all make it through the tunnel of darkness to brighter, happier days.