It’s an amazing time in which we all now find ourselves. From the general standpoint of journalists, it’s a time when we are seeing our normal beats turned upside down as the COVID-19 pandemic infiltrates virtually every section of the news.
It’s certainly had an impact on what I’m writing about these days. In more normal times right about now I’d be penning a column about the very fat and happy raccoon that took up residence in the dumpster on Rusty Metal Farm recently. Or writing a column speculating about the mouse carcass left on the garage stairway and posed like it was out of some sort of CSI: Rusty Metal Farm episode.
Instead, I am writing about face masks and the act of kindness that took me from dreading their use to finding in them an odd sort of comfort.
I’m not talking about the personal protection masks — like the N95 models — used by the front line health workers. I’m talking about those cloth masks the CDC recommends we all wear when out and about to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
I’ll admit it, I was not a fan of those masks at first. It’s not that I did not recognize the science and common sense of wearing them — because I did. It’s that the sight of them was a stark reminder of the very real dangers posed by the pandemic.
Seeing an ever increasing number of people walking around wearing masks made me feel like an extra in a summer B-level horror movie.
But then something I never saw coming happened. At some point during this health crisis, cloth face masks became a sort of rallying banner around which we could gather.
Reacting to the need for a robust supply of cloth masks, anyone with a sewing machine and the talent to use it began sewing masks as fast as their bobbins could spin. People who had sewing machines which had sat unused for years were dusting them off and learning how to make the masks. Others without the skills or desire to sew were taking care of logistics by getting mask materials to the seamstresses and then coordinating delivering the finished product to those who needed them.
As fabric became harder to come by when retail stores closed down under state mandated shutdown orders, crafty sewers turned to recycling old t-shirts, socks and even brassieres into masks.
You don’t have to scratch a crafter too hard to find the creative soul that lies within, so pretty soon these masks were more than simple health protection. They were also decorative, stylish and whimsical.
I’ve seen masks that look like dog snouts, masks with Star Trek designs, masks that look like storm troopers from Star Wars, masks with flowers, with beads, with painted smiles just to name a few. And I am more than a little tempted to order the official Tour de France mask.
They have gone from scary necessities to something that says, “Hey, look at me, I’m being responsible and I’m not going to let COVID-19 break my spirit.” They have become unifiers as we all face this common threat even though we have to do so by staying apart.
Some people are taking it one step farther by adding a cultural component.
Jennifer Pictou is a bead artist and member of the Aroostook Band of Micmac, and according to a story in the CBC about indigenous artists creating masks, she is channeling her anxieties around the pandemic into her craft and created an ash basket-style mask in the style of those used as work baskets by the Micmac people.
“This was tapping into something that I could really work with, one of our traditional resources that is directly tied to our land,” Pictou told the CBC. “This is my artistic statement on cultural adaptation to what is going on today while retaining some sense of cultural identity.”
Now for that act of kindness I talked about.
Last fall while visiting my friend in Winnipeg, I discovered the amazing clothing designer Lennard Taylor who lives and works in that city. I ended up purchasing one of his shirts and at the time I figured it would be the only piece of couture I would own. Or so I thought.
The shirt ended up needing some additional attention from Taylor so I sent it back to Winnipeg with my friend when she visited for Christmas. We made plans to get the shirt back to me when we met up at a scheduled conference in New York City in March.
Like so many events, the conference was cancelled as the pandemic spread and my shirt languished in Taylor’s Winnipeg boutique.
Last week, his sister Laurel arranged to have it sent to me in a manner so secure, there was no way it would get lost or stolen. When I opened the package after it arrived there was my beloved shirt and, packed neatly with it, a face mask from the boutique with a handwritten note urging me to “stay safe during this trying time.”
I was touched beyond words, and struck with the fact I now own two couture items — my shirt and that mask.
Do I still hate the idea these masks are a necessary part of our daily lives and will be until this pandemic is eradicated? Of course. But now, thanks to people like Pictou, Taylor and all those anonymous home-mask makers when I see someone wearing masks, I see someone helping to control the spread of COVID-19 and, in a very real way, a small, wearable banner around which we can rally. And that is something in which I take great comfort.