In the early 1990’s, I was volunteering at a summer camp in Peterborough, NH. Towards the end of camp one of the activities involved trusting a friend to make a plaster mask of your face while you were laying outside, on the ground. My friend Ann carefully applied the Vaseline to my face that would allow the plaster to set but not stick to my face and then she gently applied the cold, wet strips of plaster. There were two nose holes cut out so I could breathe, but I could not speak or see. I knew the sky was blue above me, the grass below me was soft and people were talking all around me. It was actually rather relaxing once I got over the fear of not being able to breathe and feeling like I was in the dark.
Finally the mask dried and we were told that our partners would carefully lift away the mask so we could have the mask to keep. It was gently pried off and as my eyes focused in the bright sun, Ann was not holding my mask. An old camp friend was looking into my eyes and held my mask. Without me knowing, he had stopped in to visit while we were doing the activity and had stepped in and taken over for Ann. He had finished applying the mask and then he was the one who had removed it. I was stunned and so happy – there are just not enough GOOD surprises in life, right? The lifting of my mask in a very unexpected way was somehow freeing. When I look at this picture I can feel the light; you can see my joy.
I’ve been thinking about that mask a lot lately. I actually still have it. It has moved with me at least a dozen times since the 90’s. I keep it as a reminder of the joy and the freedom I felt when the mask came off. Sadly, other masks went back on many times over the years as life just happened. The mask of being polite. The mask of being a wife. The mask of doing what was expected of me. The mask of good health. The mask of having my shit together. Yes, the mask came off once in a while, especially (or only?) if I trusted you, but truth be told, it might as well have been plastered on. Can you relate?
Over my journey of the past year and a half I have written here quite a bit about my breast cancer and other health challenges. At times perhaps, some may say I have shared too much information. But here is the thing…whenever I share the true me and my experiences (either here or in person), people often then share their true stories with me and there is always this moment of “I see you.” What a gift to see one another as whole, flawed, complicated, growing, wounded, funny, amazing people who are just trying to do life the best way we can. Taking off the mask allows people to connect and not feel so lonely.
There’s a song by P!nk that describes this shedding of masks and being authentic. She sings:
“It is of no interest at all to me what you have or who you know. Can you tell me where you have been? And what you’ve learned from it all? Tell me what you dance for, how you’ve been a fool. I don’t want the headline – I just want the truth…When you’re authentic, you’re incredible. I like the view behind your eyes…I just wanna lie underneath this tree while you whisper secrets on a melody. If this is the last song of your life then I’m inviting you to get it right.” (From “The Last Song of Your Life”).
This spring I started neuro-cognitive therapy after months of challenges that were more than “chemo brain”. I had fallen about 15 times (including when I broke my leg in three places – yes, it has been that kind of year) and simple things like reading, driving, making decisions, following directions or conversations and just being with people had all become extremely challenging. One day while waiting for one of my therapy appointments I noticed some painted plaster face masks on the hospital wall. They were all painted by people in an art therapy class and had a little description by each artist. The masks told stories of what they wished people could see behind their masks of living with a traumatic brain injury. The unseen losses and sadness…the anger and frustration of living in a “fog”. They described why they chose certain colors and symbols and many masks were divided right down the middle or across the brain. Upon closer examination, the masks also showed joy and strength and suddenly I remembered my mask from almost 30 years ago and the utter joy and warmth I felt when it was lifted off my face.
I know all too well the struggle of people not seeing (or being allowed to see) what is under my mask as well as being aware of what they DO see on the outside. To most people who see me at work, church, on Facebook, in the grocery store… I look “fine”. In fact, I hear it almost on a daily basis and I often make a joke about how it is all smoke and mirrors or well applied makeup.
People see the mask I wear and think I’m “back” and that cancer and all the other health challenges are behind me. Yet underneath the mask, the true me is often frightened about cancer recurrence and medical expenses. I am easily confused and anxious and usually trying to hide physical pain. Perhaps you know these feelings for yourself but you also play the role of a confident, strong and happy person? I’m learning how heavy wearing that mask is. It is actually exhausting and confining. Each time I take the mask off, I feel lighter. It feels like wild abandonment. The closest thing to this feeling for me is how I feel anytime I am swimming in warm water and the sun is shining on my face. Letting go and just being in the light feels like answered prayers to me. One of my favorite writers says this about prayer:
“Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy – all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. Or maybe, miraculously, we just release our grip slightly.” (Anne Lamott)
Or maybe we simply just need to take off our masks.
So, now I am in that very same art class as someone diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. My teacher, Hillary, is teaching me how to express myself through art and lessons often include a writing component. Connecting words to visual art is new to me and I am loving it. But the most meaningful lesson has been about learning to trust that when I take my mask off more and more, I feel real. Regular Mug Uppers know when “Julie Ann” is writing versus “Julie” and I think it is the same in the art class where I feel safe to be a whole person. In art class, Julie Ann is trying new things that are out of her comfort zone and the paintings are starting to take on a distinctive style. Another way to say this is that Julie Ann is taking the mask off more and more in all areas of life and I like her.
Yes, sometimes it is scary not knowing what people will see when I take that mask off. The 30-something year old mask from summer camp is sitting in front of me right now while I write this blog. I think of the face that was beneath the mask while it was being formed and how I felt when it was removed and I felt the sun. The sky was blue. The grass was green. People I loved surrounded me. I felt joy. I felt peace.
Anne Lamott describes this feeling so well for me:
“Light reveals us to ourselves, which is not always so great if you find yourself in a big disgusting mess, possibly of your own creation. But like sunflowers we turn toward light. Light warms, and in most cases it draws us to itself. And in this light, we can see beyond shadow and illusion to something beyond our modest receptor, to what is beyond us, and deep inside.”
With a grateful heart and thanks to SaltyGirl Beauty, I was a guest at the Warrior Revolution retreat last weekend. It was an amazing retreat for women stacked with inspirational speakers, medical experts and social media influencers who addressed “the unique issues women with cancer face through honest, provocative and positive conversations.” In other words, we took our masks OFF. A repeated phrase throughout the weekend was to “be a flashlight” for others. This thought has stayed with me and it has inspired me to develop a new focus for this blog so stay tuned! As one of the speakers (@kelseyfoxbennett – follow her on Instagram!) said, “I see you exactly as you are – it is safe for you to just be here.”
Here’s to taking off our masks, seeing each other, finding the light and sharing that peace.
~Mug Up Mermaid