No wonder that the child at the end of the corridor started screaming and squirming to escape parental arms. Was it the red, the colour of blood? Red, the colour of fire, burning throughout life, from liquid birth to desiccated death, snuffed to ashy black. The white, the colour of innocence and purity, in that moment, overshadowed. Daylight was needed, escape from this cave of stories.
Wearing the mask makes the storytelling safe. It does not matter who tells that story: everyman or no man. It’s the rich associations of the mask that dominate the encounter. This mask has many tales to tell, and only one tale: that of life and death. Softened by white, underpinned by red. If that story is one we do not want to hear, we cry for exit.
Who has put on that vital mask? Perhaps a god, or just a saint. Sainthood pulls us near, yet pushes us away. It’s not for us; it separates us from transcendence. We’re attracted to the power, the radiance. We approach because we want to feel the warmth of the fire, and, at the same time, we bow our heads, humbled, keeping our distance.
Children will often tread fearlessly. For them, the mask is a let’s pretend, a peek-a-boo game that is seasonally fascinating. An all-knowing, all powerful oracle, a god to whom they can tell their secrets, their innermost desires. There is learning to be acquired. And later they may create their own mask, and wait and hope that others will choose to see through to their inner self.
It’s true that many adults have been burned; they find it difficult to play this game. Yet for those who are willing, who boldly visit the secret territory of sainthood, their early fears are forgotten in the telling of this red and white story. An old man and a young child share their innocence, and from this springs hope.
It takes courage to look at the eyes behind the mask, this whiskery white mask which is not a mask, but a negation, a frame, a disguise contrived from myth and marketing – the two activities that subvert human need, creating distraction, leading to nothingness. Then the mask becomes opaque. We are told stories that merely entertain us; we are not meant to see through them.
So let us treasure this moment when hope is supreme. Let us rejoice in the tenacity of those who hold onto hope, because hope is so easily transmuted into desire, into wishes for those bright shiny distractions, bolstered by popular approbation, but which in reality are hollow and crumble to ash.
Emerging from the blackened chimney, sustained by irrelevant age, you exquisitely bring the mask to life once more. You put on the robes of sainthood, don the mask and look out into a naive sparkling world, there to dispense the little wisdom you have acquired, as a gift to the young person who has sought your company, in whom hope is alive.
But even then this flimsy mask creates a barrier, preventing true communion. You find that you cannot put this wisdom into words that the young person will understand. So instead, you tell a story, a story that will delight them, transport them into a different reality, a story which contains a truth hidden in symbols and images, a truth hidden behind a mask, a story of good and evil, and above all, of hope.
© 2017 Peter Young