Most of you reading this will likely think of Halloween at the mention of masks, but where I’m from . . . “throw me something, Mistah.” (Or “Sistah,”) rules the day. For those unfamiliar with Mardi Gras, it is truly the greatest party on earth. From January 6th until Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) each year, the streets of New Orleans and the surrounding communities host parades and street parties. Families gather in the same spot along a parade route where they’ve gathered for years. Much fried chicken, po-boys, king cake, and beer is consumed.
The parades aren’t your typical ones where beauty queens wave from an open convertible. Yes, there will be a “royal court” on display, but there’s so much more. The bands are better. The floats come in elaborate (and often satirical) themes.
The riders are in costume. Masks are an essential part of their costumes often looking much like those cheap, plastic masks that are sold with children’s Halloween costumes. The masks add to the mystery of the parade so much so that most local ordinances require riders to be masked while on the floats. Parade-goers often join in the fun with their own extravagant costumes and masks.
Traditionally, masks were worn by during Mardi Gras to allow revelers to escape social judgment. No matter your social status – all are equal behind the mask. Our modern-day “masks” serve the same purpose. Not the masks worn by revelers; rather the ones that we don each morning. Those thin veneers that we never leave home without. Those facades that help us face the world. The smiles that say, “stay away.” Even when pain presses against our broken hearts, we create picture-perfect lives on social media. Snippets on Snapchat. Isolated updates on Instagram. Pithy posts on FaceBook. The perfect life tweeted in 142 characters or less. The lives we think we should have. The lives that we think will convince others of “nothing to see here.”
While our socially-acceptable lives simmer on social media, we move through our days trying to keep all the shards carefully concealed. “Busyness” built as a buffer. Obsessive tidiness to put a “spit and shine” on our squalid circumstances. Martyr-like sacrifice in order to divert attention from our own dire needs. Reclusive isolation, an even darker shadow snaking around us as a shield.
Shel Silverstein so poignantly points out the problem with masks.
While masks may serve to distract others from seeing our “blue,” no mask will ever hide our “blue” from ourselves. We are all blue. Our collective blueness -floats in the air like the big flakes of a winter snow or a summer dandelion scattered in the breeze. It puddles in the streets like an April rain and in piles like fall leaves. It sticks to us. We pick it up on our soles, unable to shake it from our souls. We try to wash it away, but it just won’t go.
Maybe it wasn’t meant to. Maybe we were never meant for masks. Even the best of masks slips down over our eyes obscuring our vision –blocking everyone else’s “blue.” The inability to see the blue around us is the driving force behind the mask. We perceive the lives of others so perfectly balanced and we do not want to be subjected to judgment for falling short.
Her children don’t cry. There are no Legos on her floor. Her dinners could contend for a James Beard Award. Pajamas do not fit into her carefully curated wardrobe and ice cream isn’t allowed within her perfect lifestyle choices. Better button up and put on a good face. He has an adoring wife who supports his every move. His numbers never slip at the office. He is the envy of all at the gym. Let me put a shine on this strained marriage and sweep away my sagging performance – at the office and in the gym.
Our modern masks serve the same purposes as traditional ones – saving us from social judgment. We fear being judged, fear losing control. So, we hide our true selves. If no one can see my “blue,” then they can never reach a verdict. They can never call me soft for feeling too much. They can never question the level of my faith in times of trouble. They can never indict my commitment to my family, my work, my health, or my God.
What would happen if we all dropped our masks? What would happen if we posted pictures of our floors strewn with Legos and our burnt supper offerings? What if we admitted when we missed the mark at the office, in the gym, or in our relationships?
I will be the first to admit that I have spent more time sprucing up the face that I present to the world than my real face. Life just feels safer behind the façade. Sometimes, however, the façade cannot withstand the forces of life. Carefully crafted pretense is left strewn across our front lawn. Feelings are blown wide-open and blue is exposed to the light.
Like Mardi Gras, hurricanes are a mainstay in the Gulf South. If you’ve ever been through one, you will never forget the sights and (lack of) sounds in the aftermath. More so, you’ll never forget the smell. The tendency is to hurry through the cleaning process because the stench is unbearable. Cleaning up in the wake of Hurricane Life is the same way. We can hurry to clean up the mess. Our lives reek. Rebuild the walls before anyone catches a whiff.
Or – we can take our time. Carefully examine each remnant and decide what is salvageable and what isn’t. What will serve as a healthy memory of the past? What serves us to move forward? Which pieces will just end up in the mosaic of a new mask?
What do you do when life is turned upside down and your mask is floating down the street? You have the opportunity to recognize the choices that you get to make each day. Take steps that you choose not because you have to. Under that rubble is hidden your purpose – the reason that you are still here.
I would never suggest that losing Brooke was a good thing. It’s the single most horrible thing that has ever happened in my life. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I’ve found some new insight, direction, and purpose amongst the ruin. I’m still the first to put on a smile to hide tears, but the veneer is weakened. Tears overturn the simulated serenity in tough moments and on tough days. I don’t know if I’ll ever again be fully able to hide my blue. And, that’s okay. Maybe as I continue to turn the pieces over in my heart, I’ll gather the courage to let all of the carefully constructed containments crumble. Maybe another “blue” will see my mess and have the courage to say, “me too.”