Without My Mask, People Will See Me Talking to Myself

The gearshift became my mask hanger.

On Saturday, Oregon lifted its mask mandate. With exceptions for healthcare and public transportation, we don’t have to wear our COVID masks anymore. Of course, they said that before and then Omicron came. 

I took advantage of the break to wash my mask collection. They’re sitting around the laundry room drying like little puffy kites.

It was a joy to sing at church on Sunday sans mask. I joined St. Anthony’s just before the pandemic. There are some people whose lower faces I had never seen. Lips! We have lips. And we get to wear lipstick. Most of the mask era, I just did my eyes, if that. Why put on makeup that won’t show and will get all over your mask? Or dangly earrings that tangle in the elastic that goes over your ears?

How sweet to be able to sip water without moving a mask out of the way. To know people can see your smile. To not have our words muffled by the mask.

People can also see my frowns, my inappropriate laughs, my curses, and my counting madly on certain tricky piano songs. For two years, we have hidden behind our masks. It got to be a habit, and now everybody can see us. That will take some getting used to. 

Meanwhile, what was up with the woman coughing and coughing somewhere toward the back of the church? Considering all those unmasked people–and a few with masks–it was unnerving. In my little piano island, I feel somewhat safe. The Clavinova is so tall people can barely see me. The germs will have to work hard to get to me. But we’re all paranoid. A cough is not just a cough anymore. The paranoia is going to remain long after the virus finally slinks away. Meanwhile, my masks are clean and ready for the next onslaught.

Remember when only bank robbers wore masks? I remember trying to make a mask out of an old bandanna. Then the church ladies got busy making masks, and I acquired a full wardrobe to match my outfits. We even got “singing masks” that pooch out to allow more air in.

We looked down our noses at those who wore their masks under their noses, which defeats the purpose. We got used to masks hanging around people’s necks like a scarf. We got used to the absurdity of wearing a mask into a restaurant, taking it off to eat and drink, and putting it back on to leave, as if we weren’t breathing the whole time we dined. 

Remember when people were afraid to touch their mail, their groceries, or their dogs for fear they had COVID on them? 

Remember when everything was closed? Here on the Oregon coast, sawhorses blocked the entrances to the beaches. You couldn’t get a hotel room or eat in a restaurant. At the doctor’s office, you waited in your car till they called you. At our vet’s, we still wait in the car or near the car because the puppy gets excited and needs to get to the grass to take care of business. Hospitals and nursing homes still limit visitors. When will we feel safe enough to gather around a loved one’s beside?

I remember when I went to buy spa chemicals early in the pandemic. Customers weren’t allowed inside the store. A worker peeking out the half-open door asked what you wanted, passed it out to you, and took your money. Buying bromine tablets was like buying drugs or bootleg liquor. Weird times. There are little children for whom mask-wearing is normal. They have never lived without them. 

I often wonder what my father would think of all this if he hadn’t died just before the pandemic. He was born shortly after the big influenza epidemic. Two cousins lost both their parents to the flu. I wonder if any of their masks were tucked away in the old house on Branham Lane.

A hundred years later, we were wearing masks again. More than three million people worldwide have died of COVID-19. I knew and loved a few of them. People are still getting sick, but officials are playing the numbers game, betting that it will be okay this time if we remove our masks. We’ll see. 

Meanwhile, taking off my mask feels very similar to my dog Annie removing her protective cone. We’re both feeling a little naked these days. 

Are you unmasked, too? How does it feel? 

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Masked singers look forward to setting the music free

At our monthly music jam in South Beach, the talk was all about shots. Who has gotten the COVID vaccine, who has not, who is still trying to get an appointment? There were six of us. Turns out three are scheduled for our first shots this week, two are fully vaccinated, and one is still fighting the online registration system. The shots are so popular that you have to move quickly or you’re out. The first call I got came while I was driving to church. By the time I got there, all the slots were filled. The next time, I managed to respond within the first five minutes, so I got my appointment.

We are all hopeful that by the second Sunday in May we might be able to sing without masks. Oh, what a joy that would be.

You might wonder how we have continued to gather during the pandemic when we’ve been mostly in isolation. Some have opted to stay home, but the rest of us decided we could still jam with great precautions. We all wear masks, we sit far apart from each other, and we keep all the windows open, even in the cold days of winter. It’s not ideal, but we need music. Most other jams and open mics have been canceled. We have no gigs. Zoom singing doesn’t work.

I do play with the choir at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, also masked and distanced, recording Masses for people to watch online, but I miss singing for live audiences and listening to other performers in bars, restaurants, or auditoriums. I miss festivals, with crowds gathered around booths and outdoor stages, with kids and dogs and everybody together . . . remember that? Imagine standing shoulder to shoulder, singing, sharing a mic, feeling each other’s breath on our faces. Imagine all the things we never thought were special until we couldn’t do them anymore.

Masks make it hard to sing. The notes get buried in the cloth. Months ago, our church choir was given masks made for singers, with plastic frames pushing them out enough for us to breathe. Regular masks suck into our mouths when we inhale and trap the air we exhale. Soon we’re choking. This is better. Not perfect. I get a headache every time I sing with the mask on. Even with a microphone, I find it difficult to sing loudly enough or articulate clearly enough. Little things like watching the director’s mouth to make sure we start together are not possible.

I forgot my mask when I arrived at the South Beach Community Center yesterday. I had so much to carry, with purse, music, guitar, mandolin and music stand. No one said anything until I realized my faux pas and ran out to the car to get my mask. (I hang my favorite masks off the gearshift. Some people use their mirrors. Where do you hang yours?) We all forget sometimes. I know I’m not the only one who takes a few steps, then claps her hand over her mouth. OMG, forgot my mask.

In the news, we hear about other parts of the U.S. canceling their mask mandates. We see pictures of “mask burnings.” It’s too soon. Too many people are still sick. Not enough have been vaccinated. In Oregon, we’re keeping our masks on for now. We just have to wait a little while longer.

Have you heard Dolly Parton’s parody of her hit song “Jolene”? “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate . . .” Might as well have fun with it.

I sing mask-free at home. It feels good. But harmonizing with other people feels even better. Someday soon, the songs will ring out again, our mouths wide open to set the music free. Because all of us at the jam are now eligible for the vaccine due to age, occupation or special conditions, we are hopeful that two months from now, we can sing with uncovered mouths and see each other’s happy, relieved smiles.

Please, God, let it be true.

The South Beach open mic/jam happens on the second Sunday of the month from 3 to 5 p.m. at the South Beach Community Center, 3024 SE Ferry Slip Road, across from Aquarium Village. Bring your ax and your mask and join us. Wear something warm.

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