Notes in Glass Bottles

Unmasked

This week, I walked into our local Kwik Trip convenience store without slipping on a mask for the first time in more than a year. It was a little anticlimactic, given how long we’ve waited for this day to come—everyone else in the store, similarly unmasked, went around buying bananas and milk and eggs and morning muffins so nonchalantly, I couldn’t help wondering whether I had dreamed the whole pandemic. Me, I felt like celebrating, which I did by smiling at everyone I saw.

I feel like this should be the basis for a new holiday. Jews mark their liberation from slavery in Egypt with Passover, so why can’t we henceforth have a spring holiday—call it Unmasking Day. We’ll celebrate by gathering and smiling at one another, and hugging, and singing loudly, closer than six feet apart.

I never had any problem with wearing a mask. The exponential mathematics of the virus seemed to recommend such a small personal sacrifice; it floored me that even the mask would be weaponized in our ongoing political strife. I’m glad to not be wearing a mask in public anymore, but I’m downright thrilled to be done with arguing about the practice.

That said, the most moving anti-mask argument I heard came from religious conservatives who objected that by covering up our faces, we were covering up the image of God. What a beautiful sentiment! It reminds me of the vision Thomas Merton had at the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in downtown Louisville: “How can you tell people that they are walking around shining like the sun?”

The pandemic had its upsides and its silver linings, and one of them might be the reminder that, for all our technology, human beings are not reducible to bits and bytes; we are not digital. Our embodiment means that we are and forever will be analog sacraments of divine grace. Nothing can replace a smile shared between friends, or even strangers, from a few feet apart; there is no app that will ever be able to replace a warm embrace.

Pre-pandemic, maybe we were too quick to trade these human treasures for the digital treats served up by our phones. There’s an opportunity, now, post-pandemic, to savor our human connections, and to nurture them. It will be a beautiful new world, after the masks are put away, if only we can remember to encounter one another with a little more awe, and a little more reverence, as if we stood on holy ground.

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