by Heather Phaneuf
I press my nose against the windowpane and eyes glaze as the stark white of a pandemic February taunts me. The very act of my breathing heats the window with fronds of frost – botanical fantasies. As if writing a cold line of seasonal dismay, tracks mark out where a fox has broken through the layer of snow on its way past the bird feeder. The grass is masked by snow.
As this is certainly the season, along with a global reason, masking comes to mind. By now you no doubt have a suite of masks of your own: handmade, elastic or ties, medical, thematic or corporate. What about be-jeweled or embroidered or pieced? And now, or very soon, you’re probably layering – three layers at least. If not – why not?
Did you find it took a few days or weeks to finally feel comfortable with masks? Did you ever? Do you find it only takes seconds now to feel uncomfortable if you’re without one? I’m finding the wearing of masks at this time of year beneficial in unexpected ways – they keep my face warmer in this chilly, eastern Canadian landscape. Masks make my eyes transcend mere functionality as they crinkle in greeting, or look longingly at some uncharted tomorrow, beyond a masked rim. The mask gives a horizon to eyes bright with hope that we will indeed be recognized. They do, however, fog my glasses when I need icy clear vision.
No doubt there will be tomes written about how communities, nations and the great population of the earth, under threat of viral infection and transmission, against feelings of rights being abrogated somehow, masked in hopes of a better tomorrow.
And it’s happened before. We’re not alone.
In 13th century China, as told by Marco Polo, serving meals to the emperor meant wearing silk scarves to keep the breath from changing the aroma and taste of the food. I wonder if I should try this as we continue in endless culinary experimentation during lockdown. Do leftovers warrant such care?
Between the 14th and 18th centuries, plagues were frequent in Europe. In 1619, a physician of Louis XIII, posited that a mask made from boiled cardboard in the shape of a beak with two breathing holes and containing garden botanics such as dried plants, herbs or spice, would prevent infection. Hmmm, birds here might see me as competition for the seeds being put out each day – too dangerous. And herbs, well, there’s always tea.
The concept of a mask to protect, gained new ground in the 19th century with creations to minimize dust inhalation such as experienced by miners. When in 1861, Louis Pasteur proved his concept of air borne bacteria, well, that raised the bar for modern mask design and their usage today, yesterday and yes, tomorrow.
This pandemic period began with so many uncertainties but as knowledge grew, so did a niche market for masks. Through the heroic efforts of neighbours helping neighbours by home-crafting endless offerings of face coverings; to friends and families offering protection to those they loved; to stores offering masks and sanitizer to customers coming in; to artists using masks as new means of creative expression; to myriad numbers of brand items and others online – we masked.
By the end of 2020, jewelers were commissioned to create what might be the most expensive mask in the world. A $1.5 million dollar mask made of 18k gold and no less than 3,608 diamonds, including space to insert a disposable N-99 mask. Tempting, but I worry that my gardening gallomping would loosen those precious gems as I planted, weeded and harvested this coming year…so…no. Although I may find that a simpler mask, perhaps with a trowel stitched into a corner or a bold, cursive warning to an earwig, aphid, or blight, will help when tending to our plants or when at the local garden centre or community garden.
I’m finding that those fine lines around my eyes are deepening – crevicing – the need to smile with one’s eyes etching time a little deeper. And I’m saving money on cosmetics too – my perfection will remain well cloaked. But I wonder what other traditions will form? What fashion statements will follow us into the gardens and streets this spring and summer?
For now, my mask is a belief that all will get better. My mask tells you I respect you and your right to thrive. My mask is rooted in history and yet, is temporary.
The global garden we live and play in, that we were oh-so-familiar with, will come back in so many ways. In time. Mask on!