Guest column by Timothy Anderson: The masked smiler

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Thursday, April 30, 2020

The 1940s popular song “I’ll Never Sing Again” has been on my mind lately. It’s a maudlin song, whose lyrics tell of how the protagonist lost their love, and will never smile again until they are reunited.

We’ve all lost something to the coronavirus. For most of us, it’s our usual routine. For others, it’s been employment and income. And for far too many, it’s been health and life itself. I doubt there’s a single one of us that hasn’t lost something.

Something else that’s been lost, and which made me think of the old song, is the ability to smile in public. I should clarify; in an open space, well-separated, following social distancing, I’m sure you can still smile. One of the reasons I love my neighborhood of Echo Hill in Amherst is that you can walk on one side of the street and be acceptably distant from someone on the other. It’s made getting fresh air that much easier.

But it’s not just getting fresh air or getting steps in that’s important. It’s seeing someone else, some you don’t even know. Maybe you wave, or you say hello. Perhaps you even ask how they are doing. But even if you don’t say anything, you still smile. There’s something so reassuring in that.

I know a smile can seem trite. And how many times has the comment, “You should smile more” been a method of demeaning someone, particularly females? That being said, I can’t think of anytime in my life that a smile has meant more. To see a smile, be it from my wife, from a neighbor in our cul-de-sac, or from someone I don’t even know — it just means so much right now. It’s a shared communion, an acknowledgement that I see you, you are not alone, we are in this together. The time spent in sharing that smile might last only a few seconds, but that’s still enough time to bridge the isolation. It’s a simple gesture of solidarity.

Which is what makes wearing of masks so bittersweet. Please understand me, I am in no way questioning the need to wear masks, or to follow any guidelines. When I was at the Big Y last week, I had my mask on. Same as when I picked up flowers from the Hadley Garden Center. Both retailers have put much thought into how to serve customers and still be safe. It’s also not off-setting seeing everyone else at Big Y with a mask on. Now, some may have been a little liberal in how secure theirs were, but there’s still a recognition that this is something we all should be doing.

It is because of wearing the mask in public that I thought of that old song. A trip to the grocery store these days can be inevitably tense. Let’s face it; the thought of the coronavirus is not an elephant in the room, it’s a veritable mastodon.

If you’re a customer, you just want to get your purchases done and be home as quickly possible, while hoping you’ll be able to find what you need. If you’re working, you’re doing your job and trying to stay safe. All the while, the thought of catching the virus looms over everyone.

In such an environment, how badly do we need that smile? We need to give and receive a sign of kindness to each other. But with a mask on, such an exchange is seemingly impossible.

Again, I am not advocating for taking the masks off. I will continue to wear one in the public setting and I hope everyone else does too. I just lament that we cannot share a smile with our fellow humans, particularly at a time where it can make such a difference. Perhaps we need another way of communicating, a way of conveying our oneness. So if you encounter me over the next few weeks, and find that I am winking at you, giving you a thumbs up, a nod of the head, or a simple wave, don’t be alarmed. I’m just experimenting with nonverbal greetings, that can be conveyed with mask on.

Our smiles may be hidden, but what they impart still has value. We are not alone, and until the smile can be publicly displayed, I’ll be looking for another way to make that connection.

Timothy Anderson lives in Amherst.