When I lived in a community caring for adults with developmental disabilities, we had an annual Halloween party to which we invited people from other similar communities and homes in the area. It was always great fun to dress up, dance, and eat unhealthy treats — a throwback to the slightly transgressive holiday of my childhood, when the normal rules of society were put aside for one night.

In my first year, as I walked into the great hall that had been decorated with bats, pumpkins, and cobwebs, I looked around to see who had arrived at the party. A goofy-looking man in a tall Dr Seuss hat beamed at everyone, while a witch hunched in the corner and grinned to herself. A trio dressed as identical triplets strolled around arm in arm. A vampire flourished a tattered cape; Donald Duck bopped merrily with Minnie Mouse; a pirate strode around bellowing “Arrrrrgh!”

I had not yet met most of the residents and coworkers from other communities, so I couldn’t recognize them beneath their costumes. With a shock, I realized that I had absolutely no idea which of them were “disabled” and which were “normal.” When I guessed, I was wrong more often than not. The markers that helped to orient me in ordinary life had been stripped away, as everybody got to look and behave as they liked, rather than in the way I expected them to.

Behaviors like twirling, grimacing, limping, staring, cackling, and rocking were suddenly no longer out of the ordinary. Missing teeth, squints, and hunchbacks were now features that anybody could claim with pride.

There was no question of imitating or mocking the residents; we had simply joined them, with a kind of relief, in a space where the compulsion to be “normal” had been lifted, a space where we were free to play, to imagine, and to dream. Rather than covering up our real selves, it seemed that our costumes helped us to uncover something that otherwise remained hidden. And what was thus revealed was that we were all the same — in each being utterly unique, a crazy creation of our own devising.

In these days of masks and barriers, much is being uncovered. Our fears, our weaknesses, and our anxieties are all escaping from the darkened attics of our minds. But when I am able to let go of those fears, restraining my impulse to scream and run away, I sense that something else is also being released. When everything is crazy, it means we don’t have to pretend to be normal any more. And maybe, just maybe, we can make that into an opportunity to dance.

4 thoughts on “Masks

  1. So interesting, especially the bit about people not behaving the way you expected — I wonder how much of this is the result of seeing, in our everyday interactions with others, only what we expect to see. I’ve been watching lots of Sherlock Holmes (Brett & Cumberbatch), and Holmes constantly reminds us to *see* — not what we think or assume will be there, but what is *actually* there, and *all* of it. But because our lives train us into the trap of expectations (stereotypes, for example, all based on biases we might not be aware of), seeing honestly and completely is nearly impossible.
    Lots to think about here!

    1. It’s true, so much passes us by because we are not really paying attention. That’s why it’s good to be shaken out of our habits from time to time — though not always comfortable.

  2. A really insightful story, thanks. There’s a quote which I always thought was a Yorkshire saying (but having just checked it’s by the social reformer Robert Owen) which suggests that ‘oddness’ is not limited to everyone one the individual sees as different:

    “All the world old is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.”

    I’m also reminded of the apocryphal story of a Spanish king (Ferdinand, possibly) who insisted that all those with Jewish ancestry should wear a dunce’s cap. His jester came in wearing one and carrying another: when the king asked what the spare one was for the fool said, “It’s for you.”

    The unity in diversity paradox — in all its manifestations — is one that constantly intrigues me.

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