Behind Our Mask

My daughter is an actor on stage, my father was a legislator, and I am a writer. Each of us wears a ‘mask.’ Not a physical mask but a figurative one, a persona. On stage, my daughter creates a person that isn’t her own but draws on her inner life. It’s for her art. As a leader, my father’s partisan expressions reflected his values but not his nature. He did it to influence followers. As a writer, I choose my words to show you—the reader—what I want you to see. Actor, politician, and writer, we wear our masks for effect.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t show everything to everyone because we can’t. It’s humanly impossible because we aren’t omniscient. Our mortality limits what we can know and reveal about ourselves at any one time. As mortals, we are restricted to revealing what is useful in living our lives.

I think masks reveal more of us than they hide. When I visit anthropological museums in Mexico, I study the indigenous masks from Zapotec, Aztec, Mayan and Olmec civilizations. Made of clay, stone, metal and wood, they present a bewildering array of heads. The faces aren’t realistic and some are hideous, nightmare visages with long, forked tongues protruding from their mouths. These are bizarre to someone formed in the representational artistic traditions of western Europe. We expect the realistic figures from which we might infer their character. To the indigenous cultures, the funeral masks represented who the individuals were to the people of that time and place. In those largely preliterate cultures, the masks expressed symbolically the qualities, character, and personality of the deceased. They were three dimensional eulogies for nobles, warriors and priests.

The masks beg timeless questions. Who are we? What are the secrets to our identities? Questions that philosophers, theologians, psychologists and writers have asked these questions for ages. Some clues still come from masks.

In Masks of the Spirit, Image and Metaphor in Mesoamerica, Peter and Roberta Markman describe Mesoamerican masks as metaphorical expressions of “a particular relationship between matter and spirit, the natural and the supernatural, the visible and the invisible.” Central to basic Mesoamerican religion is a belief in the natural world as merely a skin or mask of the supernatural. “The mask and its wearer exist in a series of relationships” that visually express the inner, spiritual identity of the wearers. They conceal and yet reveal the inner spiritual force of life itself, and create a “metaphorical relationship between man and the numinous.” As symbols of transformation, the masks provide the means by which humans transcend material existence to unite the realms of matter and spirit.

Does the mask or persona I wear daily to work, to school, or at home fulfill a similar function, even if on a mundane level? How much of my mask is designed to hide who I am and how much of it is intended to reveal my identity? Does the mask truly represent me in all times and places? Is it authentic?

Like Mesoamerican masks, I think mine mask—and yours—is fashioned by family and society to help me live and work harmoniously if not happily. For the most part, you and I accept our personas as a ‘given;’ like the sky or the air. We take it for granted and seldom examine our identity unless we are in crisis. Society accepts my mask and yours because they are consonant with our respective communities and cultures, their histories and traditions.

My mask presents an imperturbable face of understatement over a buttoned-down persona that rarely makes overt expressions of emotion. This mask fit well over the introverted side of my personality, especially during adolescence, when I thought (erroneously) my reticence added an element of mystery to my imagined ‘coolness when, in fact, it simply hid my social awkwardness. It worked well in an emotionally guarded family living in the fervently indirect social environment of rural Minnesota.

As I entered upon a career, I updated the mask without changing the underlying design as I adapted my persona to new settings and new colleagues. It represented who I thought I ought to be, wanted to be, and was. The mask felt comfortable in Minnesota in a profession where its qualities furthered my aims and ambitions.

I spent time in Mexico as an adult learning the language and culture, and arrived wearing my usual Minnesota mask. But the peoples and cultures of Mexico are different from those in Minnesota. And so are the masks people wear. As I worked at learning the Mexican culture, some of my Minnesota persona felt out of place and I had to assume another one to ‘fit in.’ As actors know, masks possess transformative power. In Mexico, my assumed role, drew upon aspects of my personality and character little used in Minnesota. Before long, a more extroverted and emotional facet of my persona emerged and struggled for a place alongside my buttoned-down imperturbability.

I liked the Mexican ‘mask’ and experiencing myself in a new way. At the same time, I faced the question of which persona, which mask, reflected my authentic identity? Was the more open, extroverted Mexican persona more authentic than the buttoned-down professional mask everyone knew in Minnesota? Which was real and which a pretension?

After several years of struggle, I now regard each mask as authentic. Masks are transformative and the sum of my being is greater than I can express in the attributes of a single mask. Each persona reflects an authentic part of me consonant with where I am and who I’m with. Like the Mesoamericans, I believe we have relationships with our masks as we have with ourselves. My mask—and yours—is a channel for expressing our life force in a manner accessible to others.



It is rare that I enter anyone’s  house or office that I don’t immediately glance at the bookcase or the magazines on end tables. It’s a habit in homes and offices where I don’t know the people. Title by title, I try to extract a clue as to their interests, their tastes and, possibly, their character. It’s more than idle curiosity; it’s part of a ‘strategy’ for making a connection, establishing a rapport, and knowing what topics to avoid. I

I lived with a Mexican family when I studied Spanish. The first time I entered their home, it took only a minute or two to see the titles in their bookcases covered a wide range of art, culture, and history. I knew immediately we would have a lot in common. In time, our shared interests grew a deep and lasting friendship.

The contents of a bookcase are something unique if not personal, and may be as good as a curriculum vitae. Its quirky collections are as individual as a signature, and a quick study of titles may reveal its owner’s ideas, interests, and passions – a map of the soul. Now and then I come upon a bookcase stocked with new, leather bound books, for ‘show.’ I know they’re meant to impress me but pristine-looking books aren’t impressive, regardless of the authors. Worn covers and dog-eared pages, books leaning on each other, are the spoor of a serious reader.

A large, ceramic disc of the sun hangs over my desk; a simple work by a Mexican artisan, something we brought back from Oaxaca years ago. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about it, just as there is nothing peculiar about other common objects in my study. But if you look closely, these things might tell you a lot about me.

The disc hangs on the wall of my den at a height where we look at each other – eye-to-eye – while I’m writing. Its taffy-colored face has a blue nose and lips, but the right side of the face is brown and shaped like a crescent moon with one eye. Uniting of the sun and the moon is a common motif in Mexican art. To it, I’ve tucked small American and Mexican flags, their staffs crossed behind a gap between one of the eleven triangular ‘rays’ surrounding the face.

The two flags are important to me. I’ve grown to love Mexico as I love the United States, but I love them for different reasons. Each culture has its great virtues and its tragic flaws; and at some level these virtues and flaws are complementary antidotes for what ails each country – if only their peoples can see it.

At some point, years ago, the disc broke, the break running from beneath the eye of the ‘sun’, then just under its nose and across the lower cheek of the ‘moon’. I don’t remember when or how the break occurred. The cause of the fracture, like the spark of a lovers’ quarrel, is lost to memory. But the line where it broke is as obvious as the Río Grande. It’s that way with many of life’s breaks and difficulties; the cause isn’t always remembered but the scar is visible.

Instead of throwing away disc, I restored a piece of the universe; gluing together the sun and the moon, the masculine and feminine faces of the cosmos. Now, like a couple after counseling, the breech is healed and the union is stronger than before. The still-married sun and moon, bedecked with Mexican and American flags, smile as I work beneath their gaze.

Behind me stands a tall, white bookcase from Ikea. The lower three shelves are filled with books, the upper two hold CDs and DVDs. Atop it are small wooden figures, fanciful animals, two elephants, a rhino, and a giraffe, playing musical instruments; produces of a Mexican artisan. The disc, the wooden animals, the bookcase, and its contents reflect if not describe me in ways I hadn’t considered.

The rows of books are segregated. On the very bottom are the larger, heavier books: a historical atlas of WWII, and a volume that accompanied Ken Burns’ film, The War, an encyclopedia of American history, How Fiction Works, Child’s History of Waseca County, and others, including a Rand-McNally road atlas. On the shelves above are paperback books on Mexico, anthologies of short stories written by Latin American authors, a study of Mexico’s presidents, bi-lingual Spanish/English stories, novels, and histories of Latin America.

The CDs are arranged somewhat by genre: Folk, country-western, Latin, Irish, jazz, classical. Within each genre are one or more favorite songs from certain times of my life. To say that only one song is my favorite is difficult if not impossible. That’s the rub. Each song occupies one of the many corners and phases of my life. To pick one song over another as a favorite is to diminish the other parts of my life in favor of another. But life is an indivisible whole; but certain songs encompass a defining moment, an era, an evening, a love, or a phase of my life. They’re part of my personal archeological record.

Listening to the Fleetwoods sing I’m Mr. Blue takes me back to high school dances and an innocent time with no clouds on the horizon. If I play a Duke Ellington recording of It Don’t Mean a Thing, I can see my parents dancing a little in the living room to the music of their generation. Strains of James Taylor singing Sweet Baby James carries me back to grad school in the ‘seventies and finishing my dissertation knowing I won’t be a history professor. As a corporate professional in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, I escape that mode by listening wishfully to country-western music of Willie, Waylon, and the outlaws. On road trips with my daughters, they choose the music and I pick up the expenses. Now, when I head west, either alone or with one of my self-styled ‘roadies,’ I leave before daybreak to the strains of Willie Nelson singing On the Road Again. I play this when they aren’t with me, letting the melodies conjure up memories and something of their bright spirits.

More than music, it is language – books – that hold a special meaning. On my shelves are John Gerach’s Sex, Death and Fly-fishing, my father’s Minnesota Legislative Manual, Wallace Stegner’s Sound of Mountain Water, The Book of Common Prayer, autographed first editions Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson, Theodore Roosevelt’s Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, We by Charles Lindberg, and Canoeing With the Cree by Eric Severaid. There are many other books on writing, collections of stories and novels. It’s a collection of interests, a hodge-podge. But a bookcase with its contents is the invisible but emotional catalogue of our lives.

Whether music and language, certain songs and words are embedded in the eidetic memories at the center of our being. They are there, always. Songs and words sometimes define a present moment; and sometimes they take us back to a particular moment. And for me, there are times when I don’t know whether I am going forward or backward in my soul. Nor do I care, I enjoying the ride.

pt: “Final Trio.”