"I love your magpies!" the discerning young woman serving me in a Canberra shop rejoiced.
Whether out of narcissism or just for fun I have taken to mask-wearing like a platypus to water and my extensive wardrobe of them includes one decorated by a dozen pictures of Australian magpies captured going about their ever-entertaining business.
In a sense the young woman's reaction endorses my serial maskedness, my enjoyment of the present good reasons and excuses for wearing decorative masks. My unmasked face is a plain, forgettable spectre with nothing about it to catch and hold the attention of a young woman, or of anyone. But my masked face has the opportunity, like a plain wall enhanced by the right tapestry, to entertain, to please, and even (for I have some masks made of the great paintings of the old masters) to educate and civilise.
For Prospect magazine Hephzibah Anderson has written a thoughtful meditation on the face mask phenomenon.
"For a scrap of fabric that hides the part of the face with which we communicate most, the face mask certainly says a lot," she muses in her piece The Masks We Wear - Or Don't.
"It's hard to think of an item of apparel that has acquired so many fraught layers of significance and controversy in such a brief space of time."
She thinks of religious head-coverings, of men's neckties and of the bra but says that these items meanings haven't fluctuated with the rapidity of the face-masks.
"Confusion has surrounded them from the start of the pandemic. The decision to put one on can be a statement as loud as a T-shirt slogan; the precise nature of that statement, however, remains fast-changing and unclear.
"In anthropological history, masks have often been potent devices, enabling their wearers to transcend themselves. Today, the face mask is safety and fear combined; it signifies a society-minded commitment to look out for others while also forming a barrier to basic connection (has anyone truly perfected the eye-smile?). All this before you consider what style a person chooses (floral fabric, surgical blue single-use, BLM emblazoned?) and how they wear it (hoicked up to the eyeballs or - horror of horror - schnozz out?). In certain contexts - the London Underground during rush hour, say - they remain emotive, especially, when absent.
"For me, masks are now totems of nagging uncertainty - and the lack of one a sign of caution fatigue ... they're becoming something like props for use in hygiene theatre: those precautions we take to feel better but which make limited epidemiological sense, viz the tatty rectangle that you fished from the laundry hamper as you dashed out of the house this morning.
"To wear or not to wear results in some perplexing social dances. And what about when I walk into a shop whose staff are maskless? Does it leave my "I care about you" looking like paternalistic virtue-signalling or worse, querulous self-preservation?"
For me most of Ms Anderson's 'to wear or not to wear?' dilemmas and agonisings are overcome by my thesis of a few paragraphs ago. Mask-wearing is a duty, a charitable obligation. Without my mask my face only blends with and augments everyday unremarkable drabness and does no good. But with my mask on, as well as it leaving me feeling pretty, oh so pretty, feeling pretty and witty and bright, I am enabled to altruistically impart a little altruistic colour, movement and delight "Love your magpies!") to the ordinarily lacklustre lives of those lucky to catch priceless glimpses of me.
Canberra's has had months of extreme rainfall wetness and God-fearing neighbours in my Woden street have even begun, bless them, to build an Ark.
One consequence of this wetness is a public superabundance in our gardens and our sidewalks of worms. Because to be a gardener is to be a worm enthusiast and a worm-whisperer I've rejoiced to see them and because, shamefully, they seldom attract any praise and thanks, I'm rejoicing over a hymn of praise to them, Worms, just published in my online Guernica.
"It always seemed to be raining that month we lived in Nashville" Camille T. Dungy reminisces.
She was always saving stranded earthworms writhing on sidewalks, pushed out of the soil by water, looking for somewhere they could breathe.
"Earthworms breathe through their skin," she explains.
"They access oxygen in air pockets they create as they wiggle underground. As they go, they eat organic matter in dirt and poop it out (gardeners call worm poop 'worm castings') to help build the productive, complex material we call soil. All this supports the vibrant floral displays we were beginning to see above ground. If I love the life that greets me at my eye level, I should love equally the workers who help make such life possible."
When next day at school Camille's daughter got into trouble and was punished for rescuing what the teacher called "disgusting" public worms writhing, struggling on the playground's asphalt that was a last straw for Camille.
"I pulled her out of that school the very next day. So much of the world's fertile splendour is thanks to soil, thanks to worms. I won't have my daughter taught to fear the lives that help us live our own."
Canberrans, why not go out now into your garden's fertile splendour and to express your gratitude to worms read them, with feeling, Camille's ringing sentiments.
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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