In Japan last year, I hiked one evening to a monastery to spend the night. Getting there had been difficult. I arrived tired and disoriented.
A young monk met me at the entrance. His head was shaved and he wore monastic robes and indoor slippers. He also wore a face mask, which is common in Japan. His English was limited and his motions were abrupt.
We got off to a bad start. I was late. I put my walking stick (which I didn’t even want [LINK]) in the wrong place. Once inside, I put the wrong slippers on in the wrong place and he got irritated all over again. I could tell despite the mask that he was not smiling at me.
The evening went on. I was seated for dinner apart from the Japanese guests who chatted happily. When my fellow foreigners showed up, they were French—and I embarrassed myself with my stuttering attempts at their language.
Later, after attending a religious service I admired but didn’t believe, a combination of cramps and sweat from the overly-warm futon woke me up. I lay awake, feeling lost and out of place. It was the only truly lonely time on my two week solo trip.
It somehow circled back to the face mask. My first interaction in the place was muffled by the absence of facial cues. The front desk monk scared me rather than making me feel welcome.
Now it’s April 2020. New York State mandates mask wearing in public places, such as grocery stores, to limit the spread of Covid-19. We float past each other in between the tomatoes and the bananas, hiding our expressions from each other.
I don’t wear a mask while I go running, but I give other runners and walkers on the path very wide berth because I’m not. I also don’t want to look them in the eye.
Before face masks, I looked at every fellow runner. It was a habit and felt good. I probably smiled. Hello, fellow human. Now, I not only get out of their way—I find I avoid looking at others. I don’t spend that little bit of energy to acknowledge another, instead plowing that energy into my run. My runs have been going very well.
When the pandemic passes and the masks come off, will I smile at every person I pass? No, I won’t. I’ve learned this small thing: I don’t have to acknowledge every human out there. I don’t have to make everyone feel welcome. Masks have taught me this.