Thoughts on Masking

Ruth Vinz, Karen Green
Art by Karen Green

Learning To Breathe, Again . . .

When you wear the mask, the mask becomes you 
—Qiu Zialong1

Where To Begin? February 2020. Snow turned ice-crystals are shredding my forehead as the wind whips currents sideways to undust the trees. I risk the last run of the day, ski mask pulled just over the nose so my own hot breath steams my goggles and obstructs the view. Later, in fireplace warmth of the lodge, the clots of ice/snow scratch at my cheeks, ears, stick in my hair. The steam starts dripping, runs down my face and into my mouth. The mask’s wool sticks to my lips. I have the urge to spit. I imagine a long shower, rivulets of warm water, a rainbow distils in the steam. For now, I start working my boot buckles.

I see her out of the corner of my eye. 

“Terribly cold,” she says, “why on earth did you keep skiing?”

She sits. I stand.

She stands to see eye to eye. What strikes me in this moment is that I can see myself in her glasses—my hair still damp-dripping just above her perfectly lined bright red lipstick.

Suppose I say to you that she is no more than an irritation, a mosquito buzz of voice I’d like to swat away. I need to tell you she does not ski. She sits in the lodge, sips coffee in the morning and wine in the afternoon, newspaper in hand, waiting while her husband skis.

“Oh, there’s Bob now. You two NEVER seem to tire. Gosh, how can you take this cold and all that snow?”

You can write the rest of this conversation without me. “Hi, Bob.” “Yes, the powder off the backside is to die for.” “Good to see you.” “Always, of course.” Bob turns to Sam—an—th–a (emphasis on all the slobbering syllables) with a sigh.

“We have the McCaslin’s party tonight. You coming this year?” Sam-an-th-a isn’t really asking. She is reminding me of her affiliation with the McCaslin’s wealth and influence.

I let the question hang in the air. “Other plans,” I say with a cheery little curve on the “s.”

I just need to say to you that I have worn what I perceive as masks of one type or another all my life to protect myself from a variety of invasions—snow turned ice, a woman who is insufferably boring and vain. Suppose I suggest that I do not consciously take off one mask to put on another, but I am aware of how a thin little coating shifts and shapes and repairs itself in moments, sometimes hardly visible; other times thick enough for me to feel the restriction on what I think is my face underneath. I worried when I was in high school and thought my little masking and unmasking were part of some illness that would soon be exposed, so I was quite relieved in our senior Philosophy class when I read in Nietzsche: “Every profound spirit needs a mask.”2

I read it over and again. Then, in my adolescent angst, I fondled my worry beads and wrote poems devoted to little cul-de-sacs of confessions to find my-self but words were never good enough. I kept thinking that maybe Nietzsche meant one mask, and I seemed to have multiples. Maybe I had multiple personalities, like in Three Faces of Eve, and so forth. And then the worry, do I have a face? Or, is everything a mask and my repertoire of masks grows with my experiences, and they line up on a shelf where one grows into another and each morphs into new combining fragments with others and into new combinations ad infinitum, but none are the I of my searching?

Suppose you read this as a confession. I am not certain I know the first face underneath all the smiles, brow curves, wrinkles, smiles, various curves of lip. Is there a first face that IS the essence of me? And, just as I write this I marvel at the idea, bald and beautiful, between the face creams, lip glosses, and the honey masks, that I am the only one who knows, as Winnicott recognized, that “feeling real”3 is really feeling alive, heart beating and the lungs taking in air. Learning to breathe comes with the recognition that the search for an identity is the real masking, that I am naturally a person of many faces, many masks, and the instability of identities makes me smile a crooked smile with an outloud laugh and this thought offers a sense of freedom that I do not need to be a twenty-four seven-day, year after year, soaked in some single-identity-type-of-person.

Masks are freeing, are not coverings but porous and fluid and elastic shift-shaping metaphors to our performativity, our identities freed to breathe as a multiverse, unbounded-ness of selves over self. And I find myself hearing Leonard Cohen’s voice as he ventriloquizes through the voice of his bereaved narrator (another porousness of identities in Cohen and his narrator?). I leave this writing to find my copy of his novel Beautiful Losers (2011) and read again the longing of a narrator who re-searches for self-abandonment only to find: “It was a dance of masks and every mask was perfect because every mask was a real face and every face was a real mask so there was no mask and there was no face for there was but one dance in which there was but one mask but one true face which was the same and which was a thing without a name which changed and changed into itself over and over.”4

And then, along came COVID.

Late March 2020. I’m outside in a blizzard in one of those blue surgical-looking masks covering both chin and nose (a box arrived three days earlier with 30 masks, a block of precious pu-er tea and ten small bottles of hand sanitizer, from a student-friend in China who sent these supplies home with her friend in California who then mailed them to me with a note inside: “I know you have shortages and we have more than we need”). Masks as gifts; masks as provision; masks in scarcity. Hers was another one of the many boxes I wiped down with Clorox in these earliest days of COVID before we knew much about how the virus traveled. I had only one mask before her package arrived—one made in haste with left-over-red flannel with Oscar the Grouch faces from some first-grade art project with a grandchild. Ironic really, this box filled with what was abundant in China and scarce in the USA—three sealed packages with ten blue masks in each—like opening a treasure—none to be found even on Amazon in those early days. Masks out of stock. Masks free of political pollutants in what has now become a hostility-born virus that masks cannot deter. Masks from the matter-of-fact production lines of China, where a mask is a covering to protect the wearer and protect others. I write a quick thank you on WeChat that ends with a query: “How is your daughter? A swift reply. “Her first year at Berkeley was perfect until March and now they are all shut away in dorms. I tried to order masks from Amazon and none were available. I am sending to her by way of another friend.” Masks as contraband. I breathe in her generosity. I think of her finding ways to smuggle masks through suitcases from Beijing to LA and then placed into padded brown envelopes hand-addressed with 29 Forever stamps of the US flag pasted on (which right in this moment has no one-nation-unity), slipped into a mail slot—all as a gesture of care. I think of her daughter, 20 years old, in a dorm in Berkeley, far away from her family, receiving this same brown envelope with handwriting she doesn’t recognize and inside finds masks, tea, hand sanitizer from home. And, I am struck by this simple act that connects us across the miles.

April 2020. I am spraying boxes (yes, again, and always now) from the local co-op, just delivered and left (no exchange of words or thank you or a box passing from one person’s arms into another’s). No visible human contact except for the brief wave of the hand in air just before it disappears into the truck. Me, a wave from the free hand that doesn’t hold the Clorox spray and cloth. I open the door and can almost see the invisible spiky crown on fuzz balls of protein that the virus encodes. I spray. Wait. Wipe. Spray. Ice crystals form on my face where the mask doesn’t cover, same feeling as with the more pleasant days of skiing where masking seems a simple gesture of protection. My glasses steam. I stop, pinch the nose piece tighter as our granddaughter waves from the street, leaves a bag on the rock wall, picks up one of the ten packets of masks from China. She blows kisses from this distance, and I laugh at her sequin covered mask with feathers for mustache. She has made masking her own. Belle of the masquerade ball, a glittering and feathered mask with oversized red lips painted on, an in-your-face-bold I will not let this virus get me down move. Oh, how the cultural images of masks come and the carnivalesque swirls in, like snow. And, I am back again thinking of the mountain, the masking, the snow but not, as I best remember, the woman Sam-an-th-a of the bright red lipstick.

Summer and into Fall 2020. In this now-moment of masking, I see, day by day, little peels of my old masks sticking to the new-less-than-N-95 variety that I put on and take off constantly. And what has been exposed are the layers of one mask over others in this moment of mandate, recommendation, compliance, and resistance where masks have taken on masking of the personal, social, and political. There seems a suspicion that if you wear a mask the mask becomes you. George Orwell’s name has resurfaced in these days of seeming fear at losing efficacy, so I hear his words through the fog of unending resistances: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”5 My first impulse is to condemn the “he” and “his,” but I’ve learned to wear these anachronisms and turn instead to argue against Orwell’s central point. Each of us is several, I want to tell him. We are present tenses, a profusion of selves, with our futures on the edges, waiting. Is the fear of COVID mask-covering-demands really the recognition that we are vulnerable, shape-shifting beings who can be invaded and controlled, and the mask is the metaphor for life out of our control? Maybe. Or not.

Sam-an-th-a stares into the mirror. She raises her right index finger to her upper lip—traces center to right, stops where upper and lower lip join. “Pick your poison,” she whispers seemingly to herself. Gathered on the counter next to her are a stack of masks—knitted cotton in mauve, two-layered aquamarine-woven nylon, copper-threaded silk, designer masks from Dolce and Gabbana, Maskela, Carolina Herrera. All the loops make her ears protrude. She can’t bear the thought of wearing yet another one. Maybe text to cancel dinner plans? She feels the pressure of her own gaze on her face and puckers her lips as if to check it’s her image. Index finger traces again from right corner across the lower lip as if to smooth out its wrinkles, smooth the sharp edge between liner and lipstick. None of the masks suit her. She tries on a new one from Louis Vuitton—$480-of-all-flex, no-safety fame. She pushes at her ears as if to tame them. Not one is kind to the ears nor accentuates what Samantha has worked hard to cultivate as her face. Samantha is disappearing from four distinct slurring syllables into a not-distinguish-able from the crowd eyes, eyebrows, big ears. “It doesn’t become me,” she wipes the stack away with a sweep of her hand.

I think of Marx and his articulation of the inseparable parts of a materialist history that center on the problematics of alienation and reification. Social masking and social characters are inseparable, and, in this moment of COVID we have cojoined the mask and the person. Expropriation—a reified mask, passed through COVID’s historical processes as carrier of alienated social capacities while ironically masking in or out a viral load. The mask is becoming a personification of a person/identities’ worth, roles and influence. Marx might remind us in this moment that the reification of persons exists in the personification of things (or masks in this case).6 And here we are exposed (another irony of masking) to masks personifying us. We become reified as a mask of vulnerabilities, facing a future we do not fully understand nor is in our control.

“Look there,” our daughter gestures toward the river’s edge and the empty bench. “Let’s take a break.” We are biking on a trail in the Catskills. A rain-soaked green surgical mask hangs on a tree branch. Three more. Hanging, drenched, tattered. It’s then we notice a note, hand-painted on a little piece of wood nailed to the trunk: BreatheFree. I cannot find words or catch my breath. “Let’s just go,” she taps to my shoulder. We are walking away. I look back. I finger the mask in my shirt pocket before buckling my helmet. Compliance to helmets, to seat-belts, to vaccines —oh, little did I (re)cognize then what was to come—but here, in the woods beside a river near sunset, a mask-hanging bodes a future that in this moment eludes my most pessimistic crystal ball gazing.

The Masked Face makes us wearer of the vulnerable, the less than powerful, the compliant-to-science, of (author)ity, marker of our frailties, an (un)becoming. Our tendencies toward generalization veer into stereotype—sheep, patriots, losers, conservative, liberal, socialist, communist. And, just so, the mask is imprinted onto our body as personification not only of our vulnerabilities but also as a stereotype of the type of persons we are. W.J.T. Mitchell calls a stereotype an invisible mask that is “painted or laminated directly onto the body of the living being and inscribed into the perceptual apparatus of a beholder.” [14]7 A few months ago I would have argued that Mitchell is speaking metaphorically. Perhaps, not so much now.

Winter 2020 into a long 2021. “Whatever happened to masking for Halloween or Mardi Gras or carnival?” We are carrying bushel baskets of winter squash and potatoes from our root cellar stash into the local Food Bank. Our grandson stretches out the word car-ni-vaaaal as he opens the back door to the Community Center. All summer we brought baskets, twice a week, filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, lettuces, cabbages, green beans, or herbs from the garden. We shared with those who never expected to stand in long lines to receive a box with bread, a little fresh produce, canned beans, and a bag of rice. Each time we’d leave the safety nest of our car, we masked. Masks are required here. I’ve come to recognize people by their masks or eyes and brows. Home-made masks, masks below the nose, blue-surgical, an occasional N-95 from a carpenter with residue of sawdust still on his boots. At the entrance, a nervous laugh from the mask-bouncer as a woman complains, “This is so fucked. Kiss these masks or my ass good-bye.” She does take the mask the bouncer dangles in front of her face. I watch as she hooks mask to ears and flips her peroxide spirals, both hands moving now, closed eyelids, a few sputtered and muttered complaints and huffs, as if taking in air before the mask inhales her breath. She has become one of the occasional outbursts, calling for de-masking, restrained in this moment where the reach of hunger supersedes the need to complain.

Just what is it about masks and masking that surfaces brutality and wrath in the same spaces of generous sharing and support? Am I speaking of COVID masking now? “A mask tells us more than a face.” Today there is talk of people literally tearing masks off of someone else’s face, unmasking them, to remove what? A disguise? A compliant person? A sheep? A thief? This use of the word “mask,” in a figural way, is not far off from the original meaning, which, very generally, was considered to be anything that conceals or disguises the face. Is this a moment born on our long-term dysfunction, dis-ease—a moment worthy of witnessing—connected to our misrepresentations and belief in the singularity of the individual or identity and a worry that I lose my identity and freedom with a literal necessity-induced mask? Just as we head out the door, a man with his dog—he with the joker-flat-painted-mask and the pup with hand-painted super-dog on a snout-shield—riddles the air with a near sonic boom of laughter, “Mask up everybody. Phosphenes are alive and well. What have we to lose?” Suspended in the fluorescent light of the foyer, the dog’s muffled howl. A cascade of laughter bleaches the air free of tension, a relief, at least for a moment.

The next and future part as disquiet grows? I write to a friend: “No collective idea can gain acceptance unless there is some carnival in it.” Maybe I mean without an essence of carnival in it. I go on: “I am grateful for the time with less motion to gain a little insight.” I don’t in fact mean this either. I am still trying to understand how I hinged collectivity and carnival and the role of laughter and transgression to this moment of illness, death, masking, division, and calls for retribution if others do not think or act as we do. Mostly I am thinking what is nearly impossible to express in words: that when all the mythologies are set aside, the stereotypes unraveled, desiring machines turned off, we will continue to grapple with what is possible—human animals trying to be more than animal, more than human, a leg up on everything and still defiant that we are the universe’s special project even when it tempts us to think otherwise.


[1] Qui Xiaolong (2011), Death of a Red Heroine, Soho Press, page. 66.
[2] Friedrich Nietzsche (2014), Beyond Good and Evil. trans. Walter Kaufmann, Heritage. section 40.
[3] D. H. Winnicott (1965).   The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International Universities Press. p. 225
[4] Leonard Cohen (2011). Beautiful Losers. New York: Vintage. p. 176.
[5] George Orwell (1936), “Shooting An Elephant.” New Writing. Autumn 1936.
[6] Karl Marx (1976). Capital, Volume I, trans. By Ben Fowkes, Penguin Books.
[7] W. J. T. Mitchell (2005). What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 295-296.
[8] Oscar Wilde (1889). Pen, Pencil and Poison

Karen Green

Karen Green is an artist and writer whose inventive hybrid image-text works have won her a devoted readership. She's the author of Bough Down (Siglio, 2013), winner of the Believer Poetry Award, and the fictional archive of a missing woman, Frail Sister (Siglio, 2018), a finalist for the California Book Award. Her visual work is collected by individuals as well as institutions, including the Yale Beinecke Library, San Francisco MOMA, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She lives in Northern California, and New York. Her work can be viewed on Instagram @theartistformerlyknownaskaren

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Ruth Vinz

Ruth Vinz teaches writing, literature, narrative research and is the author of nine books and the recipient of the Richard Meade Book Award. Vinz taught high school and currently is The Morse Endowed Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Vinz calculates in her fifty-five years of teaching, she has responded to at least 32,500 students’ poems, essays, stories, research papers and dissertation drafts from which she continues to learn about the relationship of craft and meaning.

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