My first lesson in ritual masking was taught by my godmother. For the application of a base layer, she would close the door to the bedroom, and I would wait on the other side of it.   When finished,  I would hear her voice rise, “Luthe”, “”Lu-thee,” shrill, because she expected me to be downstairs. I was never downstairs.   I ran down and back up, to make the patter of sound she would expect, and then went in to see her same face, only made-up peach.

In the time it took for her to apply the mask, she would don not only a face cover, but a persona.  She became vibrant, electrically charged, and prepared for the worst. You could hear the change in the way she breathed.

She was not just putting on make-up, she would tell me. There was a spiritual preparation, bound in and up with her ritual paintings. It prepared her for the worst of days and doctor’s visits.  I was young though, and I wasn’t looking at much but her face. I made poor correlations, dismissed her comments on meditation, and understood the transformation as a power of the mask.  “Someday,” she promised “I’ll teach you about meditation.”  I have yet to get this lesson.

Now, whenever I am home, she shuts the door for long hours. I wear this weight: She has come to use the same meditation and mask to prepare herself for the every day that she once designated only for the worst of them.  Day and worst have become synonymous.

I know, only a little of what “the worst” once was, before it became systemic.  The mask was always applied before a visit to the hospital. These visits were frequent.  She’d suffered a  long medical battle to keep her only child alive. The failure of this minute-by-minute endeavor, after twelve years of hospitals, made her voice quiet to a whisper, wearied and perhaps afraid, when she spoke of doctors and hospitals. Twelve years would be enough, I’m sure, to make anyone whisper about them. But before a real breath was taken, she was back to the hospital. Scripted on her own body, a cancer grew. She was in the same strange-lit hallways, waiting, always waiting, on procedures and results and new promises from doctors eradicating her body of one carcinogen, and filling it with another: the burnt post-chemo pain that she still wears.

I knew this history, but as a child, I understood very little of what any of that pain meant. I was invincible still, little-touched by the marring and marred way this world twists us up into adults.  I’m not claiming that age lets you understand pain, it just seems, with time passing, to demand a more frequent acknowledgment.

And in this forced acknowledgment I  have come to understand the tri-part tool of a self-mask: to conceal ones own pain, to use a barrier, a protection from the next very-possible pain, and to create a persona that can negotiate these spaces of pain with some perceived holding-it-togetherness.

While I might not have fully understood, I was privy at a young age, to the seeming usefulness of a mask.  I used it sparingly in my younger years, but, in preparation for my move to college, which involved the purging of material collections that had defined my childhood, I evaluated and carefully packed the usable masking tools from my room.

I practiced the application for a week before leaving for school. I had learned in the local theater how to draw fish tails and white spots by my eyes to open them up, how to emphasize cheekbones and draw lines to appear like wrinkles. I intentionally modified my technique, to design a new face for close-up encounters. It was a mask, I assumed, that would let me start again, in a new space. I mustered up a mantra to go with the self-painting, in order to convince myself into the  modified face.   And so I very intentionally fell into the trap of women’s masking.

In a purse I had never used, I packed the stage makeup and the few compacts I had been given as gifts from well meaning family members in my earlier years. I still have this expired collection.

The first day of classes I prepared myself, shutting the bathroom door, and smearing over my more familiar face. By the second day the time spent on my ritual already seemed absurd, the daily tasks manageable. Years later, when I was new to teaching those freshman classes I once attended, I maintained the ritual of first days. I painted my face,  I focused on my breath. And by the next day, I found it unnecessary.

It was also, in the early years of my marriage, a standard practice to don the mask while I was in my mother in laws home; A place where mother and daughter refined themselves in mirrors in the morning, and I, newly part of the family, and in their space, followed suit.

Recognizing the pettiness in the way I have chosen to don the mask, it has been applied less frequently as I age. Perhaps my scale of tolerance for the world has  strengthened as the experiences that my own body has come up against have become more frightening. I am numbed, now, to the more simple fears of my youth. and their more simple concealments and solutions.

But, because this is a mask I own, I thought it appropriate for the self-portraiture project, despite its commonplace status among women.

And so, a mask:

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