“The Masque”

It is an odd thing, the leaps memory makes when triggered…

So many horrible images of the devastation in Texas and along the Gulf Coast, aftereffects of massive winds and waves from Tropical Storm Harvey.

Prayers for the lives lost and for those that remain to pick up the broken pieces or move on…

Brought to mind is one of the many storms we lived through, growing up in the quiet Birmingham suburb of Center Point, Alabama.

Hurricane Camille, one of the largest and most destructive storms to make U.S. landfall, had spawned virulent storms that were bearing down on us. Before losing power, we had seen on television the damage in Mississippi as Camille and her offspring roared north.

I was almost eight years old. It was literally “the summer of ‘69.”

Our family (two parents, one maternal grandmother, four kids, and a dog named ‘Fluffy’) were still adjusting to all the creaks and groans of our new-to-us house, having moved in only a few months prior. The full basement (always damp and musty) offered the promise of protection. Yet the small creek running behind our house tended to overflow and flood our safe-ish haven.

Our next door neighbors, the Underwoods, had a huge birdhouse mounted atop what had to be a thirty foot pole. I remember vividly watching it come crashing under the onslaught of the still approaching storms. Fear has a distinct taste no matter what your age…

In those days I loved comic books and drawing. But soon my imagination was captured by the movies of the original “Planet of the Apes,” “2001: A Space Oddessy,” and by monsters! Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Creature, et al.

Summer meant even more visits to my beloved Huffman Public Library than usual, and my most recent borrow was a book about all these monsters in a “pull back the curtain” treatise. It detailed the actors and (more importantly) the artists responsible for transforming these normal performers into the very personifications of suspense and horror.

During the height of the storm, my clan gathered by candlelight to work a jigsaw puzzle of some beatific European vista. My companion was this awesome book (with pictures!) and a flashlight providing light for my arcane illuminations. The rain pummeled our house, but I was lost in the words and images:

Karloff as the Monster, Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney Sr and Jr as the operatic Phantom and Wolfman respectively.

The stories of these films were fascinating. The stuff of nightmares? Most assuredly. But seeds of dreaming were being planted nonetheless.

The text pointed back toward older films and even older tales. Stoker and Shelley gave way to Lovecraft and Poe. “The Telltale Heart” and “The Masque of the Red Death” were beyond my adolescent understanding, but the dark poetry of it all was mesmerizing.

Storms and years passed. Movies and books made room for the discovery of making music. Art, books, film, music…all avenues for creation and escape.

One word from those heady days lodged deep: masque. My Curious George curiosity helped me discover the broader meanings beyond the French root for ‘mask.’

The monsters I feared and loved and the masks they wore seemed to give the wearers power of a sort I sorely lacked. Yes, monsters could be vanquished, but they always returned in sequel after sequel.

I learned through the years, as many do, that masks are easy and seductive. Who doesn’t want the safety of a mask, be it terrible or benign? Words your small and terrified true self would never utter ring out with false confidence and power.

Even as adults, our disguises are ubiquitous. Our social media rampages are delivered from the safety of distance and emotional shields, beyond thought and consequence.

Don’t like my post about ___? Defriended! Complete disagreement with ___? Blocked! Idiot snowflakes! Shut up, fake news!

The temptation of the mask is a powerful one.

My triggered memory has looped all the way back to now, a leap to the realization that my life, with rare exception, has been lived behind masks of all kinds:

Master and slave, hero and monster, saint and sinner. Judge and jury and emotional executioner all in one.

It’s pretty simple, actually. I care too much what others think.

When you have lived a life learning to edit; to blend and always agree and dissemble…you find that learning abandon is hard. My “masque of spirit death” adheres with a vengeance.

Come Spirit Wind that blows away all pretense, and reveal the person You created me to be…

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