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QUOTATION: People often say that, in a democracy, decisions are made by a majority of the people. Of course, that is not true. Decisions are made by a majority of those who make themselves heard and who vote - a very different thing. - Walter H. Judd

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2005-02-03 - 10:01 p.m.

Masks


Masks represent adventure, love, tragedy, and humor. They can be whimsical, horrendous, romantic or sad. What is the appeal of masks? The history of masks, recording the fascination they’ve held for people, dates back at least to the Greeks. False faces have always been culturally linked to beliefs as they provide an anthropological perspective of disguise and deception. In my day, I’ve worn many masks – perhaps invisible, but nonetheless handy to hide my true feelings. The face doesn’t always tell the story.

Personal transformations can take place behind a mask. The youngest children delight in becoming another persona behind the mask of the Lone Ranger, Zorro, Mickey Mouse, or the make-up that changes them into Cinderella, a witch, or a skeleton. We witnessed a whole city transformed by the masks at Mardi Gras the two years we lived in New Orleans. Parade-goers yelled out “Throw me somethin,’ Mistah!” as they scrambled for candy and plastic beads no one would bother to bend over to pick up at any other time. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, are expended each year for these masked events. People behave in ways they would never behave without their masks. Is that the universal appeal? Behind a mask, it is not me, but a new personality?

Masks give protection from prying eyes into the “real you,” but also to the patient from the germs of the surgical team; to the welder, the fencer, and the goalie. And now, in our current time, the most radical and extreme, and the farthest from the tradition of the Greeks or any other of the indigenous uses of the mask, a terrorized U. S. public, seeks protection from biological warfare by purchasing gas masks in unparalleled quantities in this country.

A far cry from the masks carved for celebrations and for ritual in the Northwest, in Mexico, Bali, or Africa, many are now carved more for tourists than for tradition. Traditionally, however, dancers wearing masks and costumes honored the powerful animal spirits living in the world around them to gain their protection and blessings. Although I have not been privileged to travel far and wide, I have for the past twenty-five years collected masks from around the world as a buyer for my three stores, Centering and Tarika. Many I sold, but there were some that I just couldn’t part with.

The favorite mask in my collection is a tall Ivory Coast plank mask, representing flying spirits from the bush, portrayed in abstract geometric form. The tradition is that spirits embodied in the mask bless the families that own the mask and dance with it in public. The patterns on the mask have meanings known only to the initiates, but the large X’s refer to the sacrification marks on the foreheads of the initiated men. The checkerboard pattern represents the separation between good and evil, wise from stupid, and male from female. The large white crescent on top of the plank represents the “moon of the masks,” said to shine during the seasons when the masks perform. In the case of my Ivory Coast mask, which guards the entry of my home, it shines all year round, and I like to think protects our home from evil and helps us to make wise choices.

These days I’m wishing there was an Ivory Coast plank mask hanging in the Oval Office and at the door of Congress, too, to help assure wise decisions and protect us all.

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