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.

 

 

A persistent memory

April 10, 1947. Home.
April 10, 1947. We reach a new home.

My earliest memory is the day Dad parked our car on the soft shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three-and-a-half years old, my sister is 11 months, my dad is only 26 and my mother is 29. These young adults from New Brunswick, New Jersey, are staking everything on farming in Minnesota. They are audacious but they don’t think so.

This venture has deep roots. My mother’s family has lived in nearby Janesville since the 1870s. Her grandfather was the banker, assembled the farm, and gave it to his three daughters. One of them, my grandmother, died a decade before so her share went to my Mom and uncle. Now they intend to make our life on this land. And will.

I sit in the car’s front seat, a 1940, cream gray Plymouth sedan with a crushed front fender and broken headlight. Two days earlier, on the Indiana Turnpike, an on-coming car lost a rear wheel that bounced across the median and hit us. The windshield is grimy but I can see all right, and look down the lane toward our new home.

County Road 26 is made of clay covered with gravel and passes our farm on high ground. Melted snow and spring rains have made the road is a soupy mess of ruts. The uniform overcast makes the sky look like a gray flannel sheet. Pewter-colored ditch water and puddles reflect the sky. Fallow fields with slick furrows resemble charcoal. Last year’s grass, patches of weeds, and cornstalks seem ashen. I remember gray.

Warm air, sun, thawing ground, April 1947.
Warm air, sun, thawing ground.

Dad opens the car door, pulls on four-buckle overshoes, and shrugs into a jacket. Slowly, he slips and slides his way down the muddy lane, past the half-dead willows, past the barn with its dim coat of indistinct paint, and enters the weathered farmhouse beneath the leafless oaks.

Mother waits in the car with my sister and me. Mom is quiet and wears a long face of concentration. I will come to know that expression well. It isn’t fear but the calculation of all the unknowns and contingencies she might face.

A tractor’s purr catches my attention. Dad and another man, my uncle, drive toward us towing a trailer filled with straw. Chains on the tractor tires clink like merry sleigh bells in the dreariness. With everyone settled in the trailer, we roll down the muddy slope to our house.

The main room seems huge to me. Pieces of furniture rest in great piles – sofa, bedsteads, bureaus, and chairs – amid crates of china, boxes of clothing, and my red tricycle. Faded wallpaper and sagging plaster don’t catch my attention as much as the hulking, pot-bellied stove crouching in a corner, like a sooty bear, waiting to pounce. I’m afraid of it.

After a quick inspection of the cold house, we drive to Janesville and stay with some cousins. When we return, the potbellied stove waits outside for the junkman, the toilet and shower function inside, and the kitchen is ready for my mother.

Barn of indistinct color
A barn of indistinct color

They name it The River Farm.

Over the years, as we work the land the land works us. We drain the marshes, tile the low ground, dam the gullies, straighten the creek and plant trees. And then, when we are done with active farming, we breach the dikes, rip up the tiles, and planteoaks and prairie grasses where soybeans once grew. Dad was never happier than when on his farm.

He died at home and we buried his ashes in our woods at an unmarked place, in a clearing, on a ridge above the river. He rests next to Mom, my great aunt, my grandmother, and my uncle.

I remember this day and its details because this is the place that formed me as much as any place has shaped me. This where I learned responsibilities, developed a knack for making things work, understood rhythms of the natural world, and grew up in a life stripped to its essentials. Everything I ever learned later has a touchstone on this farm, in this community. Now, decades later, I look for and sometimes find in far-away places, people and situations that take me back to the farm and the neighborhood.

The farm as I leave it to others.
The farm that rims my childhood.

But I can’t go back. My brother, sister and I are settled elsewhere and none of us wants to live on the farm. Fortunately, we find a buyer who shares Dad’s land ethic and, with the sale, we all rest in peace. The farm’s title passes to the new owners in October and, on my way home, I drive up the lane and stop on County Road 26 in the spot where Dad parked the Plymouth in 1947. I take a last look down at the house. It’s larger and better now than it was then; and the barn is bright in its crimson coat. In autumn sunshine, the wild grasses shine in bronze and copper, sunlight glints off the pond, and the oaks on the ridge along the river mark my horizon – the rim of my childhood.

 

 

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge: “Ice, Water, Steam.”

Ice, water, and steam. Regardless of form, it remains H2O. That’s the nature of the universe: dynamic, changeable, and yet certain properties endure regardless of form or function. Matter forms and reforms, continually shaping and reshaping itself. Atoms and molecules flow into and out of each other. Creatures live linear lives yet within the cycle of seasons and phases, as in birth, life, and death. Nature abhors a vacuum and with it, stasis.

You and I shouldn’t be surprised to discover that we are at least chameleons if not shape-shifters; creatures who readily transform ourselves to meet new circumstances by adapting, mimicking, or conforming to others. It’s an inherent part of our emotional DNA; it’s how we survive as individuals and societies. We do this naturally, unconsciously, and every minute of the day as circumstances require. And yet, like water evaporating, condensing, precipitating, flowing, or freezing, we never lose our essential character. What the others see as ‘you’, are narrow facets of the greater being deep within you.

Ice: In its solid state, water can be locked in place for a long time. I started life with the illusion that I would be the person I willed myself to be; and it worked for a while. After a successful career as a public affairs professional, historian, author, and conservationist, I had a ‘reputation’ as a man of integrity; thoughtful and analytical but guarded and hard to know. I was who I thought I should be and worked hard to become. That’s the downside of success; being afraid to step outside our customary boundaries, fearful of losing our ‘identity’. Nothing is further from the truth. Only later did I learn that great changes and transformations are always possible. The processes are those of expansion and addition, not contraction and reduction.

Water: In its liquid state, water will take on the shape of whatever contains it. All life depends on this fluid state. As a Spanish language student in Mexico, I left behind the identity signified by my ‘reputation’ because it was irrelevant to my studies.  Yet, I didn’t lose my identity. Liberated from the obligation of living up to the container of my ‘reputation’, I adapted, mimicked, and conformed to the people among whom I lived. Very quickly, I noticed a new aspect of my personality emerging, something long-dormant that germinated only after I entered the right environment. My guarded introversion became a more open extroversion, opinions trumped objectivity, and emotions overcame analysis. As my wife later observed: ‘You’re a different person in Mexico.’

Steam: In its gaseous state, water is a cloud, an evanescence, a possibility that can condense as dew, precipitate as rain, or freeze as snow. The future is a steam of unknown possibilities. When my father died last January, I became the elder in our extended family; the oldest of my siblings and first cousins. I’m the keeper of the family’s past, the one who knows its history. To be the eldest has less to do with my actual years than my place in the family. Death isn’t a stranger to me, but I feel more deeply now the shortness of time ahead. Ignoring my mortality was easier when Dad was living. No longer can I ignore the fact I might be next. I retired, my daughters have married and moved into adulthood, my granddaughter was born a few months before my father died. Few months, our family comprised four generations spanning 93 years; the full cycle of life and its possibilities.

Water changes form with the cycle of the seasons: Precipitating, flowing, evaporating, and freezing. My being changes with my location and company: Guarded professional, open traveler, family elder. I am these things and more. There is joy in the constant dissolution and reconstitution of my life, it is ever different and yet always the same. Nature abhors vacuums and stasis; that’s why we are shape-shifters.