White Masks and Regret

Twenty plus years ago, I took an improvisation class, and an exercise we did used blank white masks.

No expression.


Just white, hard-shell, plastic masks with white elastic bands.  Holes for the eyes.  Holes for the nostrils.  I don’t think they had holes for the mouth.

Just a blank, emotionless slate.

Not that big of a deal, right?

The class was split into two teams.  One group wore the masks, the other group was instructed to accompany the masked actors and “follow them in space.”  No interaction.  No touching.  No communication.  We were complete and utter observers, passive.

I was paired with a young man and followed him around the room.  Most of the memory of the masked exercise is mere blur.  I know the young man moved.  I know that he walked and changed the arcs of his body, the shapes of his arms or hands or legs so that he could take on the character hidden within the blank, emotionless mask.

But, somehow, the mask took on an expression, an emotion within the vacuum of whiteness and nothing, and I was completely unnerved.

Our instructor set up a row of chairs, the masked actors sat on the chairs, the observers sat in front and just watched.

One masked actor wept.  And the tears streamed in painful rivulets down the smooth planes of the mask, pooled at the edge, and fell into her shirt where they were absorbed.

The masked actor I followed, the young man looked at me, looked into me, and he slowly lifted his hands and rested them over his heart.

His fingers curled, he violently yanked backwards, and in his hands was a fluttering (imaginary) heart.  His heart.

And his hands, his fingers trembled with a steady pulsation.  A double beat.  Two staccato pulses.  An abstract butterfly.

A conceptual life.

And he reached his hands out to me…to me…the English major in a room filled with theater majors.  The stumbling, bumbling, terrified fool of a girl-woman who was constantly unsure of herself and wanted to succeed.  Wanted to be brilliant.  And couldn’t allow herself to relax or feel assured with herself enough that she would actually just…be.

The room collapsed.  The space between myself and the people surrounding me melted into obscure, impressionistic blotches of color and it was just me and the young man and the white mask and his fluttering hands…

His butterfly heart.

Coming closer to me and his eyes were desperate and saturated with agony.

And his hands slowed painfully.  The trembling diminished.




And the room opened up and my peripheral vision registered the people still surrounding me but it was still just me and the hands that were falling into his lap and the blankness of the mask’s inexpression.

I still think about that moment, still think about how I did nothing.  I had been told not to interact, only to observe.  And I was breaking as the hand-heart was slowing because all I wanted to do was to drop to my knees in front of the young man and surround his dying fluttering heart-hands with my own.  And just blow gently onto the heart.  Resurrect the gradually dying nothingness….the everythingness….

I wanted to blow life back into his heart and then guide his hands back to his chest and help him put his heart back to where it belonged because it wasn’t mine but it was.

Him and me and a dying heart that didn’t exist but I could see it there and I could have done something but I didn’t.

This is the nature of regret.  In The Last Unicorn, the unicorn recognizes her humanity (she was briefly turned human….skipping lots of context…deal with it).  She, unlike the other unicorns, knows regret because she was human….and in some respects, she is grateful that she now understands the nature of regret.

But, after twenty-five or whatever years later, I still regret that I followed instructions and didn’t cup the young man’s hands.  I still regret that I obeyed when my better instinct was to heal.

At times, I think my actions are driven at avoiding regret, avoid hurt, avoid causing pain.  Heal.  Repair.  Fix.

Construct and not destruct.

Build….not tear down.

Today was the day.  Today was the twelve-year anniversary for my colleague.  And, for once, despite all my emotional stumbling…I did a few things right.

The young man, the lovely young man who is creating the book of goodwill messages showed me what he has constructed up to this point.  He is waiting until Friday to present it to her so that she will have the weekend to…read and see how much love exists for her.

As I flipped through the pages, the words and colors blurred and I stared at squares of goodwill messages and compassionate words.  But I couldn’t read them, couldn’t really even see them.  I merely ran my hands over the glossy, smooth edges, as though I were reading a form of braille, just a topographical map of compassion.

I regret following the rules nearly thirty years ago.  And now?

Sometimes, I flagrantly break the rules.  Maybe I shouldn’t…but I won’t live in this eggshell prison that regret can make.

Today, I taught the young man about Schindler’s List and Ben Kingsley’s lines about how the list is an “absolute good.”  I know it’s a bit of a stretch to compare a list of 1200 names of Jewish people that saved them from the gas chambers at Auschwitz to a scrapbook filled with handmade notes and goodwill messages.

And as I described Kinglsey’s character, Itzhak Stern handing the list to Liam Neeson/Oskar Schindler, I kept on hearing the Martin Nemöller’s quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

I’m not trying to come across as a hero.  I’m not.

And I’m not trying to lift myself into the exalted statuses of the men I am describing.  I am not trying to make false comparisons and stretched analogies.

But I’m really good at staying in my quiet comfort zone and not moving, not speaking, and silently staring at the actions surrounding me.

But I will never let another heart die.




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