by Mary Swander
Reprinted from Out of This World: A Journey of Healing, with the permission of the University of Iowa Press.
On one of the first days of spring, the ground still frozen but the snow cover melting, I raise my binoculars to my eyes and spot a bald eagle, a bird brought back from near extinction, flapping and soaring above the Fairview School, circling the pond, a fish in its talons, its seven foot wing span nearly blotting out the sun. In that small eclipse, I take a breath, a second to ponder what changes the sun and moon play upon the face of the earth. Here in the Midwestern countryside, the land wears many masks. The seasons are dramatic and extreme, the twenty below zero temperatures of January seem distant and remote just six months later when the one hundred degree days of July make us long for just one gust of cool air. I sit at my desk inside my house and watch the fields glass over and cover with snow in winter, wake to their deep, rich black underpinnings during spring plowing, pop with the actual sound of corn growing in summer, and bow to the swipe of the combine in fall.
Today, the sun so bright it lit up both inside and out, I worked at my desk in a pair of dark glasses, my newly-acquired reading specks perched on top of those, riding piggy back. Through these double lenses, my face hidden from even myself, I thought of all the masks I’ve worn in my lifetime and how they’ve had their own seasons, one blending into and continuing on the energy of the other, the way nature cycles round and round. My disguises have been both physical and emotional, and like Native Americans who had different masks for different ritual dances—one to invoke the fruitfulness of the fields, one for initiation rites, one to chase away evil spirits—I’ve chosen my masks to match my needs. But whenever I’ve donned a mask, for whatever purpose, the transformation in my self has opened up my perceptions with a wide wing span, allowing me to move—even for just an hour—out of the human and into a more primitive realm. Once there, I’ve caught a glimpse of the mysterious power of the spirit world flapping and soaring above my head.
Imagine the scene: ten years ago I am just out of the hospital, wearing a thick, padded paper and charcoal-coated mask. It filters out pollution, dust, cigarette smoke and strong smells like perfume. At first, I have to wear my mask just to go out of my house, for even the smell of my neighbor’s dryer exhaust with its heavily-scented fabric softener is enough to make me ill. I stay away from any place like a restaurant or bar where I know I’ll encounter heavy fumes, but keep my mask dangling from the strap of my backpack for use whenever I know I won’t be able to avoid pollutants.
Soon, I’m in O’Hare Airport on my way to see my doctor in New York City, winding my way through the United Air Lines terminal, the air filled with jet fumes and cigarette smoke. My face covered with my mask, I glide along the moving sidewalk in the underground passageway, the blinking neon lights of the artwork lulling me into a trance. I ride forward on the conveyor, a disembodied voice chanting over and over: You are reaching the end of the moving sidewalk, please watch your step. Suddenly, a little boy of five points up at me, his eyes wide.
“Mommy,” he says and grabs his mother’s hand, reaching at her skirt as they coast by in the opposite direction. “Mommy why does that woman have that mask on her face?”
“To help her breathe,” the mother says, then disappears from view down the walkway. Behind me, I hear the boy burst into tears.
In a few minutes I am on the escalator, riding up to the gates. Two college-age men in Hawaiian shirts descend on the adjacent stairwell. They spot me and begin laughing and jeering. Everyone on the two escalators turns around and stares.
“You,” one of the Hawaiian shirts calls. “Are you so ugly you have to wear a mask?”
Now my eyes fill with tears and I want to vanish down into the building with the collapsing escalator steps. Instead, I simply walk toward my gate, find my seat in the plane and wait for take-off.
“Can I ask, why do you wear that mask?” the flight attendant says once we’re in the air and the “seat belt” and “no smoking” signs have been turned off.
“The cigarette smoke makes me sick,” I say, my voice muffled through the layers of filters.
“The smoke makes me sick,” I shout.
“That’s funny,” the attendant turns away. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”
Then why did my mask bother her? Why did it bother anyone? What was so frightening? What hit that deep cord of fear in people when they encountered this wad of paper strapped to my face? Masks have been worn by all peoples in all cultures throughout the centuries for protection, make-believe, social acceptance, disguise, amusement or religious devotion. Any alteration of the face is a mask, and most of us, both women and men, have engaged in some alteration whether it be through raising a pair of binoculars to our faces, putting on a pair of dark glasses, applying eye-liner or growing a beard. Our physical appearance as a whole could be considered a mask of our individuality, the expression of our inner being, the image of what we want to be—at least for a moment.
Perhaps that’s the scary thing—to give form and shape to those inner urges and display them up front there on the face, the center of all emotions. We identify each other, after all, through our facial characteristics. We make connections through our eyes. It’s the protruding eyes of the frog, the sharp, alert eyes of the eagle that make those species real to us. We communicate through our mouths and ears. We seduce and create lasting memories through our noses. So, instead of the standard definition of mask as a cover-up, the power of the device and the very word itself comes from its opposite meaning. The mask doesn’t hide, but reveals, and revelation of self, confrontation with ourselves “face to face” is something most of us want to run away from with a childlike fear, or dismiss with a macho bravado.
Certain “primitive” peoples understood the powers of displaying “primitive” emotions through their use of mask. Eagles, bears, rams, goats, dogs, antelope, elephants, snakes and frogs all figured into the masks of Native American and African ritual, each representing a slightly different aspect of the personality, each invoking a different god. In mask, these people changed from human to animal spirits, and once a spirit, these masqueraders had both a new authority and a new freedom. Shamans, witch doctors, and ritual dancers were invested with powers of influence over others. Through the use of mask, they became raw feelings frozen in time and space. Their animal selves healed, blessed, summoned up courage for battle, or abundance in drought. In mask, they were possessed by spirits and no longer constrained to act according to human convention. They shook, giggled, danced and pranced, twisting and bobbing their heads, arms, legs and torsos in stances outside the world of standard body language.
Imagine the scene: my plane finally lands at LaGuardia. A friend picks me up, an oxygen tank tucked in the trunk of her car just in case I need help. Then we are driving into the city on an overcast spring day, my mask still covering my face, protecting me from the exhaust fumes of the hundreds of cars that speed in and around us on the freeway. Now we are walking down 58th Street, heading toward the office of the costly specialist. My friend holds my arm. I’m exhausted and dizzy from the pollution and dust sweeping up from the street, seeping into the folds of my mask.
We wait at the crosswalks, hordes of people on the sidewalk pressing round, some staring, some trying to look away, most looking past me with the polish of city dwellers experienced in avoiding eye contact with the bizarre and insane. Above us, the buildings rise up forty to sixty stories in the air. We pass a gap, a blank space in the architectural mouth where one building has been pulled down and another is just beginning to be filled in in its place. The new tooth is just three stories high, men balancing from its beams, driving rivets into steel. Rat-a-tat-tat. The sound pierces my skull like a dentist’s drill.
“Miss,” one of the construction workers yells down at me.
“Where’d you get that mask?”
I keep on walking and don’t even look up.
“Miiiiisss.” He bellows again, climbing down off of the scaffolding.
I pick up my pace.
He scurries after me, shouting, “I said, `Where’d you get that mask?'”
I hurry on, my street-wise New York friend at my elbow. “That’s right, just don’t answer,” she advises.
“Miiiisss,” he keeps it up, the sidewalk population parting for him to make his dash. “Miiiiss, stop.”
Finally, keeping my vision straight ahead, I raise my hand into the air in a power sign and flip him the bird.
My friend’s grasp on my elbow tightens. “Now, we better get out of here fast,” she says.
I break into a trot.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Please stop, Miss.” The man’s voice immediately softens. “I’m so sorry.” His voice is almost in my ear now. “Please turn around and talk to me.”
I stop and hesitantly crane my neck in his direction.
“Forgive me,” he says, removing his hard hat and slicking back his hair. He stands before me, a big bear of a man in jeans and a white T-shirt smeared with dirt and grease, his belly protruding slightly over his belt buckle. “I don’t mean you any harm. That was awful of me. I just wanted to know where you got that mask.”
I look at him perplexed.
“See, I work up there in those fumes all day and have never found a mask that really works. I’ve tried all sorts of different kinds and the one you’re wearing looks perfect. If you could tell me where you got it, I’d like to buy one for myself.”
My clenched fist loosens and I fish in my backpack for the name of the mail-order company where I purchased my mask. I jot down the address on a slip of paper and hand it to the man while we discuss the intricacies of the devices—their straps, fit, and filters. After a few minutes, we part, he slipping the piece of paper into his wallet next to the picture of his spouse, me feeling at once empowered, humbled and connected to another human being.
After that, I looked on my mask with both a new sense of liberation and a new respect for its strength of communication. I’d been harassed by construction workers on the street many times before, but never would I have even entertained the idea of giving one the high sign. Behind my mask, I suddenly felt my anger in a more clear-cut and dramatic way. My face hidden, my speech eliminated, I discovered the gestures that have become symbolic of any minority group finding their power. Suddenly, I had authority. I had freedom. And, oddly enough, I had a new friend.
A few days later on the airplane home, I thought back to my use of mask with young students when I’d conducted writing workshops throughout the state. Traveling around to elementary and junior high schools for one-week residencies, I drove into town like Meredith Wilson’s music man, trying to find a “hook” into the community—common material that the students might explore in their work. We wrote collaboratively, interviewing and gathering folklore from the town storytellers, piecing together histories of local sites, creating plays from snippets of conversation from the regulars in the Main Street cafes.
During the fall of one particular year, I arrived in a Mississippi River town that had plunged into a week-long celebration of Halloween. Witches perched on brooms atop the residents’ roof-tops. Front porches were decorated with life-sized puppets of ghosts and goblins. Large, homemade papier-mache masks, painted boldly in blacks, greens and reds and adorned with teeth, hair, and nose rings hung near the doors. On Halloween night, a parade wound its way along the snaking river bend. Shriners in red fez’s careened down the street in go-carts to the rhythm of ten or twelve different marching bands with tinkling glockenspiels and booming big bass drums. Santa Claus rode through the night in the gas company’s cherry picker, followed by miles and miles of costumed children. And no ready-made, pre-packaged skeletons did they wear, but inventive, free-form guises that had me laughing with the passing of each new school banner, each new blast of the tuba. One of my students proudly strode by dressed as a voting box, a huge cardboard carton engulfing his tiny frame, a slit for ballots near his buttocks. Another student posed as a toothache, her whole body wrapped in poofy white fabric.
Early the next morning, I ran into the farm store to buy some extra batteries for my radio and there next to the hog pans and Hav-a-hart traps was a display of masks, big plastic masks in primary colors that covered the whole face and were molded into big primary expressions. I picked out five—sadness, happiness, anger, fear, and pride—and carried them with me to class. One by one, I covered my face with them and moved about the classroom in response to the mask’s emotion, asking the students to write poems that approximated the feelings they registered. Soon the room was transformed. The students poured themselves onto the paper, concentrating like they had never done before that week, their pencils dancing across the page, hands waving in the air, begging to read their poems aloud, volunteering to slip into the masks and become the very essence of their own creations.
After that, I carried that box of masks to every school I visited. I watched big, tough, hormone-hardened eighth grade boys in southern Iowa soften into tender pups behind the mask of fear. I watched shy fourth grade girls in central Iowa come in touch with their own power behind the mask of pride. I watched hunched, withdrawn, learning disabled students in northern Iowa straighten with a new carefree sense of themselves behind the mask of happiness. I watched those same students pick up the metal waste paper basket and use it as a drum, four of them donning different masks at once, linking arms and skipping around the center pole in the room. Faster and faster they spun, reciting their poems, feet bouncing to the beat, heads back, arms flying, the other teachers finally coming to the door to investigate the racket.
I thought that one of my most successful teaching exercises. The teachers thought otherwise and I nearly lost my job over the incident. They scowled at the students and directed them back into their seats, the children collapsing into their previous stances. The teachers rushed to the principal’s office and wrote negative evaluations. Oh, to stir up the students, to get them involved, excited. The school had gone to rack and ruin!
Why did my mask work cause such a commotion? Sure, we got a little loud, but the students had become so enthusiastic about their material. Some of their poems were even published eventually in a reputable children’s magazine. What really caused the problem? Authority and freedom, the current of the animal spirit. Even the suggestion of witchcraft. There I was, a single woman, overseeing a bunch of children who were suddenly dancing with relish and release around a pole! The suggestion of paganism. Of matriarchy. Women’s power and sexuality. It’s one thing to allow this energy to have an outlet for one day on Halloween, but I was tapping this sap in the spring of the year. Not the time of falling leaves and the Day of the Dead, but of lilac blossoms and living. The time to deny our mortality, even but for just one more season.
When I flew home from New York, another friend, Marie, a puppeteer, met me at the airport, and when I recounted my mask escapades to her, she went right to her workshop and transformed my paper mask into the face of my big brown dog Bill, his tongue sticking out. His expression was at once friendly and defiant. Now, I could slip on my mask and feel powerful, angry, affectionate, and loyal all at once. Now, I could laugh at myself and be as outrageous on the outside as I felt on the inside. Here was my animal spirit blatantly displayed on my face. Now people really stared in airports and pointed. Suddenly, with just a slight alteration of the mask, I changed from a pathetic creature to a celebrity, children running up to their mothers wanting to know where they could buy a mask like mine. Marie could’ve made a fortune.
Again, I felt a surge of power and control. Again, I felt a change in my concept of femininity. I found myself wishing I could maintain this same sense of confidence without a mask, but knew that throughout the ages, to attain autonomy, women appeared in different guises. Heavy make-up has always been the providence of prostitutes who up until modern times were often also actresses adept in applying face paints. Akin to my situation, a prostitute’s mask became both her defense and badge of honor. She could function independently and most usually illicitly in a male-dominated world behind her mask. Like prostitutes, women herbalists, or “witches”, lived outside the system, and threatened the status quo through their economic independence and the control they lent other women who not only healed but plotted love affairs with the aid of their potions. Witchcraft provided medicines, abortions, paints and powders—the here and now needs that the male world dismissed or forbade.
In 1770, the British Parliament heard a motion that women who wore “cosmetics, scents, paints, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips” and seduced men into matrimony would be subject to the laws of witchcraft. Certain death. But such alterations have given life to women through the ages and provided a kind of psychological screening or distancing that allows them more space to function. City dwellers have always worn more make-up than their rural counterparts. Cosmetic masks would seem to help compensate for the intensity of living in close proximity.
When I became ill, I could no longer wear any make-up. I reacted to its chemicals and broke out in huge hives all over my face. At first, when I looked in the mirror, I felt naked and frightened, so accustomed had I become to my mask. Since I moved out to the country to the Fairview School, I’ve lost that fear, surrounded as I am by the make-upless faces of my Amish women neighbors. I’ve noticed a directness and lightness to their countenances, although they aren’t entirely without masks. All keep their heads covered in some fashion with a bonnet or scarf. Many wear large, thick-lensed glasses, and most have spent a lifetime outdoors with the sun and wind brushing their skin. Many are classically beautiful. Often a buggy will roll by, and for a moment, I’ll think I have been watching a movie with Liv Ulman portraying an Amish woman. Others can only be characterized as homely with asymmetries and rough-cut features. Yet underneath these incongruities and accessories, their faces, “pretty” or not, have an openness not unlike the land itself that comforts me.
What accounts for the uniqueness of their faces? Diet, exercise, a strong social and spiritual connection. But also the starkness of their existence. Educated only through the eighth grade, they looked at things straight on, without intellectualizing their problems. Not that they don’t have stresses and anxieties—for honesty can also be a mask—but these people are stripped of a layer of complication and pretension that most of the rest of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, walk around with every day.
Imagine the scene: one day in May, the season just turned to shirt-sleeve weather, my neighbors Donna, Stu and I are walking into the back parlor of one of our neighbor’s houses. Another funeral. Another grossdadi in a hand-made coffin. Oren lay shriveled and tiny in the box, his hands crossed, his legs, twisted from living for over sixty years—his whole adult life—with the effects of childhood polio. His head propped on a small pillow, Oren’s face was almost the same color as the case, a cloudy white. His beard, a thin, straggly clump of hair neatly combed and groomed, fell from his chin down toward his chest, white against his starched white shirt. The only dot of color came from Oren’s lips, drawn tight and in a straight purplish line.
We bowed our heads, acknowledging the passing of yet one more human among our midst. Oren’s face was without make-up. No powder, rouge or lipstick kept us from the bald facts of his demise. No cosmetic mask covered his visage. Instead, we were confronted with the stark spookiness of plainess-something very uncommon these days in the funereal kingdom. A death mask. After we’d wound through the front parlor, offering our condolences to the relatives that perched on the hard wooden benches, the immediate family against the back wall, the aunts, uncles and in-laws squished into the center holding babies on their laps, after we’d visited with Moses who sat on a folding chair on the back porch, his legs crossed, black jacket unbuttoned at the collar, a house wren trilling from the tree branches, we climbed back into the car and pulled out of the lane in silence.
“Now that guy really was dead!” Donna said at last.
Stu and I laughed nervously, but we understood her remark. Even though all three of us had seen our share of death and been to many “viewings” before, these Amish ones were a kind of initiation rite. A lesson in living. When you peel off one mask, you find another, the second even more revelatory and disturbing than the first. If even in death we wear a mask, where does the real person start and stop? Is the human body and face only a social shell and we just masqueraders, mere layers of pretense? Can we ever get to the self—whatever that is? Can we ever get to our own hearts?
Examine this photo: I am five years old and sitting on the living room couch with my two older brothers, ages eight and ten. One has his hands over his eyes, the other over his ears. Mine are placed across my mouth. See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil. We’ve been posed that way by our photographer father who thinks this is cute and funny, our hands becoming masks transforming us into monkeys. The picture is haunting. Three middle-class children suddenly leap into the primitive, our bodies becoming animal spirits, our faces like the masks of ritual dancers, driving away evil spirits.
My mask is especially appropriate as I am an extremely shy child who has a hard time saying anything, whether good or evil, in “public.” I literally run and hide in the closet when someone comes to visit, and loud voices and laughter from strangers make me flee behind doors. I am a connoisseur of woodwork, a mistress of concealment among racks of winter coats. My problem is so severe that finally in the second grade, in consultation with my teacher, my mother gives me a choice between going to the psychiatrist or the children’s theatre classes. I choose the latter and take on the role of the little toy kitten, part of the cargo of the Little Engine that Could.
Whiskers drawn on my face, a little wad of cotton pinned to my derriere, and my hands shaking in fright, I can and do make it up the mountain, even if it takes one spill off the stage to get me there. Yet my voice gets no louder, my social interactions no bolder. A wise director throws me into the part of the wicked queen in the next play, forcing me to stomp my feet, pound my fists, shout and yell, bossing my subjects around until I am exhausted from my own outpourings. In rehearsal, at first I am a complete failure in this role—so bad that the other little thespians complain that they want someone else to play the part.
Then, as we go over and over the show, my wispy voice begins to take on some resonance, my fists slamming harder and harder on the arms of my throne. I get more and more boisterous. My voice raises, louder, full of anger. I am nasty, evil, and I enjoy it. The show opens with me dressed in dark blue with thick ominous-looking eyebrows painted on my face. I never look twice in the mirror. I never turn back. From then on as I grow up, I still have trouble showing my anger, but learn to fake a kind of confidence, and soon faking seems real, almost more natural than my wimpy self. No matter how scared, I am able to muster up the courage to talk in class, to get up in front of an audience and speak, to eventually teach a class. This facade becomes another mask. Throughout the rest of my life, in one way or another, I pursue theatre, and one role is superimposed on top of another. Throughout the rest of my life, one emotional mask masks another.
The Lend-a-Hand Club, a home for “unwed mothers” and the building where I rehearsed my children’s theatre classes, was built on the Mississippi levee. Almost every spring the flood waters of the muddy river spilled over the banks and down into our basement “studio,” that served as both a cafeteria for the “girls” and rehearsal space for us. The current carried away some of our costumes and sets, leaving yellow water marks on the walls every season, one higher than the next.
“You’ll arrive for the performance on time,” our indomitable director shouted one spring through her megaphone at dress rehearsal. “Come hell or high water. And last year we had high water!”
The water so high we watched King Arthur’s magic sword float out and an upright piano in, we canoed through the Lend-A Hand that year, waiting for the raging river to subside. When it did, it did gradually, the lapping waves outside our window always a threat. After we cleaned and tuned up the piano, we still could not relax as the streets and sidewalks were full of dead fish, frogs and salamanders. The sewers boasted even stranger creatures. We kept a brick on the toilet to keep the muskrats from making their entrances into our quarters.
By this time, I was a teen-ager and had several princesses, a fairy God mother, and a string of wicked queen roles in my credits. Good or evil, I had become adept at displaying a public front to hide the private self, and could swim in and out of personas on demand. In my dreams, however, I couldn’t fake it. During the day, my face may have been stony to mask physical and mental pain, my face may have been smiling to conceal deep anxiety, but when I put my head down on the pillow at night, my animal spirits came out to claim their own reality.
And so it found me—the muskrat—in my nightmares. It grew larger and larger each time it appeared, and it appeared off and on for the next fifteen years. It was wet, smelly, scary, its paws sharp. It chased me, gliding through the river, water whisking off its back. It dove down into the depths and took me with it. At once, it was my evil spirit, my power. It was my primitive, base self, with all its inhibitions, all its desires and sexuality, there growing larger and larger as I learned to hide myself more and more.
In my thirties, my illness forced me to wear a literal mask again—the padded charcoal layered one used to keep away pollution, perfume and germs, a direct descendant of the carved, wooden face shields worn by witch doctors while exorcising the demons of disease. As I struggled to regain my health, the muskrat grew into a bear, wrestling, smothering and consuming me completely. The muskrat became King Kong, roaring with a deafening din. The muskrat became a dragon breathing fire. The muskrat became a huge white bird rising up off the roof of my house, an angel, St. Michael, slayer of dragons.
Now, more often the muskrat is a cat stretching on its haunches, exercising slowly. Yet sometimes whole nights are spent still searching for food, running up and down the basement stairs, stalking, alert to the smallest micro-movement. And sometimes whole mornings are spent with the image of a mouse between my teeth, its tail hanging out of the corner of my mouth. Then sometimes even more horrifying nights are spent with the muskrat a winged hyena, flying toward me looking for its own dinner, fangs out, fur fanning away from its body in an aura of psychedelic colors.
Often I wake from these wild nightmares, shaking and sweating, only to be calmed by the sound of a buggy rolling by my window. I look out onto the predictable, solid blackness of the vehicle and its occupants, their faces tranquil in the morning light, eyes wide open to the sun, foreheads shaded by their black bonnets or straw hats. I think back to the year I was ten years old and dressed up as a witch for Halloween, my hair powdered and pulled back in a bun, age lines drawn on my face. I wore my great-grandmother’s dress that I had found in the attic, a frock—long, black, and plain that buttoned straight up the front like those of my Amish neighbors. On Halloween night, I went to a party at a friend’s house and we roasted hot dogs around a huge bon fire, the flames crackling and dancing in the air just near the wooded ravine that rose up to meet her back yard.
I stood there next to the blaze, my pre-pubescent body already filling out the dress of my tiny ancestor, my impersonation of a witch more closely aligned with my role model than I even knew. For in that dress, my great-grandmother had made rounds from house to house in the pioneer Iowa countryside, nursing the sick, bringing herbs and potions to those who suffered from typhoid and dyptheria, the plagues of the times. When she exited the houses, her polstices and teas left inside to do their work, and returned to her farm, she built a big fire in a cauldron, stripped down and boiled her dress, the steam rising up into her face, before entering her own gate.
Witch, witchdoctor, healer, healed—today they all seem part of the same fabric. They all seem part of the same authority and freedom of the human spirit to realize its own power. The most powerful bird in the sky circles one more time above the schoolhouse, then is gone out of sight. Soon, the spring fields will flame, farmers burning them clean of stubble. I’ll stand at my window and watch the blaze roll over the hill, reminiscent of the old prairie fires. I’ll feel the same excitement and fear the pioneers must have felt when they saw the fire grow closer and closer—concern for where its awesome leveling force might stop. In just the course of a month, the fields will turn from white, to brown, to black—three quick costume changes, three different masks. Then the real magic will begin. The inner urges of plants will be given shape and form, displaying themselves upon the face of the earth. The rains will fall. The branches will bud. The gods will be evoked.
Mary Swander is the author of several highly acclaimed books of poetry (Driving the Body Back) and memoirs (Out of This World and The Desert Pilgrim). She is a commentator on Iowa Public Radio and a Distinguished Professor at Iowa State University. Read more about her and her work at www.maryswander.com.