I am probably late to the party but today marks the first time I went grocery shopping wearing a DIY-mask. So far, debates on whether wearing a mask is useful or not had prevented me from doing so. Instead, I had focused on physical distancing, minimizing face-to-face interaction with persons outside my household, and hand washing. In early April, I wrote about the meaning connected to the making of masks and what the masks do to our understanding of the pandemic. Reflecting on my ‘wearing-experience’ continues these thoughts and since a diary is, I suppose, also a space for micro-observations and banalities, here we go:
My mother already started sewing masks in February and mailed me a stack of them weeks ago. Until today, they have been waiting in the shelf. Every time I walked past them I told myself that it is certainly good to have them ‘just in case’ (just in case what exactly?, I still wonder) but decided that it is not the time to wear them yet. My mother refused to sew masks out of whimsical fabric, because “this is not a joke and a mask is not a toy” and made masks out of white cotton bed sheets. However, when she ran short of old bed sheets to recycle, she made a few masks out of the fabric usually reserved for baby clothes. Therefore, we now own ten white and two colorful (little hearts and blue ducks) masks. Today I picked the mask with the little hearts.
Long story short, grocery shopping was a disaster. I probably should have had rehearsed putting the mask on at home in front of a mirror. It took me quite some time to make the mask fit properly. Breathing was harder then anticipated and the mask kept sliding up my nose. I found myself touching and adjusting it several times in the store, and with every time I got more annoyed and felt guilty of putting the purpose of the mask in jeopardy. Furthermore, the risk of infection was so much more present to me. The itchy piece of fabric on my face put me in a ridiculous sort of ‘crisis-mode’. I was stressed out by the other persons in the store. In the weeks before, I got used to the keeping-distance-getting-out-of-each-others-way ballet every customer becomes a part of when entering the store. This time, the mask distracted me. I rushed through the store avoiding eye contact and conversation. At home, I realized that I forgot half of the things I wanted to buy. I felt like a fool.
In retrospect, wearing a mask did several things to me. Firstly, on a purely physical level, I felt uncomfortable. Wearing a mask was exhausting and distracting. I wanted to get out of the store and out of the mask as fast as possible. Secondly, being aware that half of my face was covered hindered my interaction with other people. What is the point of smiling at people when they cannot see your mouth? Non-verbal conversation via facial expression seemed impossible and pointless. The mask felt like a barrier which isolated me from the other persons in the store and I ended up ignoring them. Last but not least, the mask materialized the hitherto abstract fear of infection, never before did the pandemic feel so ‘close’ to me. Usually, I have enjoyed shopping as a welcome distraction from staying at home but this time I was nervous and restless. All this made me think about Bill Callahan’s concept of ‘multisensory artifacts’ as performative spaces of social-ordering and how this relates to the mask in the context of the pandemic. This made me much more aware of the ‘power of the mask’ and how it shapes my actions. I am probably overthinking this, and I know I will get used to the mask. In fact, I have to. From 27 April onwards, wearing a mask in stores and public transportation is mandatory in Germany. Next time, when I have to buy all the stuff I forgot today, I will do better. I do not want to be blind for my environment, I do not want to rush, I consciously want to interact with others, I want to be empathic. Maybe, next time, I will pick the mask with the blue ducks.