My fingers drummed on the kitchen table as I waited for a customer service representative to take my call. I sighed impatiently, wondering if I had enough time to eat another cookie before the store associate came on the line. I had a vague sense that eating dessert at ten o’clock in the morning was unwise, but under coronavirus lockdown my pesky sweet tooth had become a fang.
As I bit into a vanilla wafer, an angry screech issued from beneath the kitchen table. One of my cats fled the room in anger; I’d accidentally stepped on her tail while my feet restlessly tapped the floor.
“Sorry,” I muttered, then snapped, “Why don’t you stay on the couch and give me some space?”
As I was rebuking my nonverbal feline, a pert voice chimed through my earbuds.
“Thank you for calling,” said a young lady with a Midwestern twang. “With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking today?”
A truthful answer to that question would have included a noun such as “malcontent” or “grouch.” Instead, I rattled off my name and got straight to the point, anxiously demanding when I could expect the face masks I’d ordered from her firm three weeks prior.
“I’ve only got one, and I need backups,” I said, flustered. “Your company’s sustainable sourcing was the reason I bought from you, and my credit card has already been charged, but I don’t even have a tracking number yet. And, by the way, this is my third call — well, first, actually; I used your online chat support the last two times. But I really need these masks.”
To her credit, the representative handled my inquiry with a calm grace that quickly evoked a heartfelt apology from me. With an assurance that my order would soon be en route, I donned my current face mask and headed for a quick walk around the neighborhood for some fresh air and much-needed perspective.
Passing one or two masked figures on the sidewalk, I reflected that this now commonplace face covering was in many ways revealing.
I’ve found myself looking more intently at people’s eyes, simply because that’s all I can see of their countenances. Sighted or dimmed, these mysterious orbs provide a glimpse into the soul, as ancient maxims and even Scripture itself observe (cf. Mt 6:22-23; Lk 11:34-35).
For those on the frontline of the pandemic, masks — or the lack thereof — have shown us how unprepared we have been for so sweeping a crisis. Coveted N95 respirators, which filter 95% of airborne particles, are in short supply. Health care workers have been forced to reuse masks, or to make their own, or to go without.
For countless volunteer stitchers (including the I.H.M. sister who made me a pink patterned mask) shielding our faces has shown how open so many hearts are to the needs of others. Young and old have sewn thousands of coverings, often quite colorful and creative, to protect individuals they may never meet.
And for those who go without, masks unveil inequalities in access to information, medical care and economic opportunity, as well as wounds from distrust and alienation. Among the marginalized, wearing a mask against an unseen enemy can seem pointless when hunger, gun violence and addiction loom so much larger.
A season of masks, one that has even driven us from gathering for the Eucharist, has strangely revealed us to ourselves, while making known more deeply the love of a God who sees our anguish, and who has promised to “(heal) the brokenhearted and (bind) up our wounds” (Ps 147:3).
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