Last Saturday at the sweat lodge, a woman confessed
to breaking her ex boyfriend’s mask.
It was a prize possession, carefully crafted for ceremonial performance,
suddenly shattered in what seemed to be a fit of rage,
rooted in festering frustrations
with the deceptions masked by smiles, comforts and confessions
of wanting a better life,
not just a different partner to whom
the old masks are new, or for whom, new masks can be made.
We agreed her anger was righteous, justified.
Smash the masks right along with the patriarchy.
They are tools of manipulation, not of health.
We all know by now truth works best when its laid bare.
Any deception, omission or misrepresentation is no better
than a bold face lie.
Toxic femininity? Smash that too.
All the masks must die.
And yet. . .
An authentic mask is real and no better nor worse for that.
It’s just a tool, and surely we also know by now
the value of tools is in how we use them, and why.
Manipulation may bring anger, but that doesn’t make deception wrong,
rather a choice with consequences which are ours alone to judge.
We are entitled to our secrets.
We can choose those with whom we share our truths.
We can embrace unknowns and continue to ask questions,
accepting all things as though there is a back door
open to persistent uncertainty.
Personally, I like it better this way.
Stories are the richest when contrasting layers connect,
erasing conflict, bringing depth —
making metaphors which speak across things like
class and time,
and the masks are a device re-framing the same story for new minds.
My story is the one about the woman who is afraid to use her voice,
so she functions behind masks, each serving a purpose
until they break, gently, on their own.
Re-framed, it’s the story of the woman whose biggest fear
is being herself, a classic.
As a child, I refused to remove my mask one Halloween.
I won a dance competition but got pneumonia
after hours in the suffocating heat of my neighbor’s garage,
my mouth and nose encased in plastic.
My mother blamed the mask, but I just looked at my trophy and smiled.
Now, my body carries cancer.
Some balk at the audacity with which I dare to say I’m so sick
yet look so well — relatively speaking.
Others know the body is always just a mask across the face
of the multitudes it contains.
Doctors order pictures which will penetrate all my layers,
showing them where next to cut or send a radiation beam,
and I smile when they can’t quite read the results:
Fuzzy images show disorderly cells dancing to the beat of something
which is not quite carcinoma.
Apoptosis, programmed cell death,
becomes a better word than remission.
I let it roll off my tongue while I swallow my chosen medicines,
intended to re-set my system
so that the malignancies die as intended
before necrosis sets in.
Apoptosis versus necrosis can be a good way to a read a mask:
Is it part of a cycle — something to show, shield and then shed?
Or, is it consuming its wearer — transforming them into the host of a parasite?
A mask which ceases to be a mask IS a dangerous thing.
Neither masking, nor masked, my cancer is now part of me —
mutable rather than fixed, marking, but not concealing,
a deep hurt I can choose when to show, and to whom.
It’s powerful in that way.
So am I. So are we — all of us carrying cancer or something like it,
bearing the burden of our unique privileges and pains,
our human condition reducing each of us to masks
across the face of quantum reality — especially today.
My neighbor, who works at the gas station,
where I walk almost nightly to purchase drinks and toilet paper,
is packing his apartment after his uncle’s deportation to Mexico,
and I am sitting here,
awkwardly scrawling poetry in my notebook in the dark,
rain misting around my Santa Fe,
parked beside the track where I once vomited at 5 am during the 24 relay,
behind the state of the art fitness center,
which replaced the workout shed I knew affectionately as The Pit.
That fitness center metastasized around a covered pool
where Olympians trained briefly
before the bombing of Atlanta’s Centennial Park,
and where I once jumped from the high dive
because my friend Mike threatened to poke me with a booger,
dangling from his outstretched fingertip,
that summer before he died from a congenital illness
the spring of our third grade year.
Buses circle the lot as they shuttle people from campus
to the bars of Broad Street and back in time,
making all of us seventeen again,
our need for a fake ID replaced by a sense of existential longing.
So, it’s reunion weekend at my prep school.
My friend broke her boyfriend’s mask last week.
I have cancer.
My neighbor was deported.
His nephew tells me that’s the way of things.
I can’t think of what to say, so I smile softly and wish him the best —
my expression a mask of hope, touched by grief.