Do You See Me?
Sky People cannot learn, you do not See.
-Neyteri to Jake in "Avatar"
As if one needed eyes in order to see.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am usually the only athlete in the gym wearing a mask, and one of the oldest, white-haired women. There's another woman in my demographic, but she does not wear a mask. Kudos as she fast-walks for more than an hour on the treadmill listening to something or other on her headset, oblivious to everyone huffing and puffing around her. Once the guy next to her did interval training, got off the treadmill, huffed and puffed and spewed. No one said anything about his lack of consideration even though the Ulster County Department of Health had just sent out another "high" Covid alert about a new variant.
The years slowed during lockdown, and now have accelerated. Based on my own unprofessional survey, those in their 20s, 30s, even 40s, don't feel the acceleration as much as older people. They have more time ahead of them, so they are getting on with their lives, as well they should. But in my immediate circle, friends and family are developing ailments they never anticipated, some are dropping away into eternity wherever that is. Covid deaths and Covid related deaths—cascades of organ failure in the ICUs—are commonplace now as they have been during the pandemic, even among immuno-compromised young people, but when they first happened they were a shock, now they are not. We hear about these losses first or second hand, we sigh with compassion, we attend funerals and memorials and continue living our self-absorbed lives afflicted with the "fox-hole" syndrome: the guy next to me is dead but I've survived Covid.
A long article in the New York Times last weekend in the "Well" section suggests we recover from pandemic isolation with intention, socialize as much as possible, connect, reach out, make phone calls, cultivate micro-connections in our daily lives. But how to navigate this as a Covid-vulnerable older person wearing a mask? Thus my question today to you, dear reader: I see you, but do you see me?
Feminist that I am, I dismissed laments of invisibility from older women… when I was young. No longer. Not only is the lament real, the experience universal, it is now exacerbated by THE MASK. There is a caveat, of course: American culture is particularly ageist. And this ageism is amplified by our driven, material culture. The woman as object has not disappeared from the male psyche, which is why a not so young guy at the gym cruises and stares at younger women as his eyes glide over me, the invisible older woman, yet more invisible behind a mask. Younger women are also in a glissade when confronted with an older woman. It's more nuanced but it's palpable.
By temperament I am outgoing, by profession deeply interested in everyone's stories. Masking is a torture for me, an incarceration. And I cannot find a solution other than to talk through it, a kind of piercing cri de coeur: I see you, but do you see me? As an experiment, I'm going to write these words on a surgical mask in thick black ink and wear the mask to the gym. Who will respond and how? I will report my findings in the comments to this blog post. I anticipate a few laughs, at least.