Layers and Masks

(and no, I don't mean the ones in Photoshop)

I keep a list of potential blog topics, ideas I feel are noteworthy and potentially interesting content. This ever-changing record of my thoughts is kept in a physical notebook, one I started on a recent plane ride at the beginning of the year. However, though I feel a strong need to make lists in my daily life (to attempt to find order in the chaos) I am finding that so far each post this year is coming out of conversations I have during the week. As I sit down on Sunday morning and decide what to write, there is always a clear theme from the previous week - a topic that came up in many contexts and often through a variety of mediums. Call it kismet, Baader-Meinhof, say, perhaps, that I am ready to see a certain theme, that I am open to a new definition. Whatever the source, conversations this week are all about identity - choosing, shaping, letting go, and owning who we are.

We all wear masks at one point or another. The question is whether you will allow me to see behind yours. And, more importantly, if you know you wear one in the first place. For a long time I denied it. For years this sculpted mask of mine fit so tightly, almost smoothly, that it became a mark of honor. Ingrained to the point that I forgot to notice the seams. For years I counted the mask as an accomplishment - look how quickly and quietly I can become...anyone. When I looked in the mirror I saw skin, but on camera the mask was inescapable. Staring back at myself, I saw all I had given up. All I had become. Through dedication and loyalty, hope and expectation. Fear and love. Once I finally saw her, I was more terrified than any hero faced with the snake-crowned Medusa. I was already stone. It took 4000 miles, three mountain ranges, and two months of sunlight to finally crack the marble mask. Not to mention a whole lot of humor, patience, and pop music.

In the last weeks, I have thought a lot about where these masks come from and when they are useful tools versus survival mechanisms, or even means of escape. I remembered moving to a new city, the first time I did such a thing, when I was 18. I started college and began the corporate ladder climb, the mask and costume changing with each new rung.

I remembered walking through downtown Portland at various times - on a coffee break, picking up lunch, running errands and how I was constantly aware of the perceptions of others. In some ways it is an occupational hazard - I was always looking, watching, studying how people looked at one another, at themselves, how their features changed based on light, weather, the day of the week.

In the beginning, as with any new transition, I always carried a camera. I stood out then, but not because I was hidden behind a lens. My identity, the face I showed the world, was all steel-toed boots, gender-bending suits, florescent feather boas. I hid by standing out, becoming a character, and I sought to fit in through the same means. When you’re a weird kid, people rarely question what you are doing or why. My world was one of observation. Closed, except to the androgynous-neohippie-intellectual-artist-types who recognized a reflection of themselves. This was the summer before my first year in college.

Later I sought to blend in. I put on suits of a different kind, with heels and handbags, slowly expanding a wardrobe of prized Goodwill finds to include the fashionable and infinitely more appropriate Banana Republic sales racks. I sought to bolster my confidence with the previously-scorned prep of J Crew and, later, the trendily bohemian textures of Anthropology. Looking to belong in corporate America, I discovered retail therapy. Ten years and three careers later, I gave away three dozen pairs of heels and traded boxes full of suits for skinny jeans and fitted t-shirts. I went back to digging through tables piled high with used clothes, delighting in “the find,” now measured in pesos rather than quarters.

With every transition I have discovered something of myself. Each time I put on a costume, became someone or something, I lost and gained puzzle pieces of an identity. Now I am fluid. The heels of Manhattan give way to the sandal of San Miguel. No longer is it about appearance or the perception of others. I dress based on the practicality of cobblestone streets, the joy of clothing I can dance in. My armor fits in three suitcases, with room to spare for cooking utensils, books, mementos of travels, cameras and lenses, and the laptop that accompanies me everywhere. I still frame the world. Everywhere I see light, movement, color, patterns, lines. But I have stopped separating myself from it. Everyday I find ways to myself to the world. It is an infinite revealing. It is real. I see myself and reveal myself without judgement, without a need for proof or validation. Over years and miles, I remembered the woman behind the mask and I found that she was there all along - watching, waiting, growing, becoming strong.

As you go into this new week I encourage you to own your identity and own your creativity - soon enough they will become one.