One morning in the early weeks of the pandemic, I made the (very) short trip down to our garage to look for a bin that had my twenty-year old stash of cotton quilting fabric. Together with my rarely used sewing machine, and a gift of elastic from a friend, I had all the supplies to sew masks for friends and family. The first one took me several hours, but I found a rhythm and became more efficient, and the later masks were (somewhat) more well-made.
Over the next few weekends I made masks that I gave to my neighbors, co-workers and family. It was relaxing, and in this strange and disorienting time, was a small practical thing I could do to be helpful.
I am not a great seamstress. My first foray into sewing was the drawstring skirt I sewed in sixth grade home economics. I chose the simplest pattern possible. Let’s just say that the skirt’s straight lines were not well matched to my curves. Aside from a button or two, I didn’t sew anything again for many years.
My oldest sister Wendy was a more accomplished domestic creator than me. She was a great cook and knew how to sew. So it wasn’t surprising that when she became pregnant, she sewed her baby a quilt.
But when her son was almost two year old, Wendy was killed in a senseless and tragic incident. Her son kept that blanket close for many years. He loved and held it so long and so hard that it faded to gray and grew thin and frayed.
When my sister Lisa became pregnant a year later, Wendy wasn’t here to make Lisa’s baby a quilt. So I bought a quilting book, fabric, batting and a quilting hoop and made a quilt for her daughter.
After that, I sewed quilts for friend’s marriage canopies and for their babies, and then for my own son, who was born six years after Wendy died. And then life got busy. For my second child, I bought lots of great fabric and got started making it, but never finished his quilt (sorry Leo!). The sewing machine went to the back of the cupboard, the fabric into a large plastic bin on a shelf in the garage.
Sewing masks is my (small) attempt to create safety for my family, my neighbors, my co-workers, my friends, and myself. Wearing a mask is an act of love, not a statement of fear. It is a choice to respond to potential harm by taking responsibility for our own health as well as the health of others.
Wearing a mask is an action of mutual care. The scientific evidence is clear that we can dramatically reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus with ordinary cloth masks. And the highest level of safety happens when we BOTH wear a mask. We can’t do it by ourselves. I wear my mask for you, and you for me.
There is a story attributed to Rabbi Haim of Romshishok that goes like this: In both heaven and hell there is bountiful delicious food, but in each place, the inhabitants have long soup ladles instead of arms, and cannot bring food to their mouths. In hell, the inhabitants go hungry, but in heaven they do not because they feed each other.*
The dominant narrative about victims and survivors of violence is that we want vengeance and for “someone to pay” for the loss of our loved ones. For many of us, this type of accounting makes no sense. There is no punishment that can balance the loss of our loved ones. We don’t want to live in the hell of isolation and retribution. We don’t want to create more suffering: we want to prevent it.
All across California, people are making, purchasing, and donating masks for essential workers and vulnerable people. While we wait for our public officials to reduce the population inside our overcrowded prisons, Re:Store Justice and other organizations have donated thousands of masks to staff and residents of California State Prisons.
We want to help ensure that no family experiences the loss of a loved one (whether to violence or a virus) that could have been prevented.
In the months ahead, we have the opportunity to create heaven or hell right here in our communities. Will we develop systems of mutual aid and care for everyone, including the least among us? Or will we refuse to be accountable for the harm that happens to those who don’t have the power or resources to keep themselves safe? In a world where so much feels beyond our control, we can do this one thing: wear a mask. I will, will you?
*Thank you to my Rabbi Sharon Brous for teaching about this story in her weekly Torah teaching.
Rebecca is dedicated to creating opportunities for transformation and healing for everyone impacted by violence, including victims and people responsible for harm. Her work in Restorative Justice is rooted in her longstanding commitment to addressing disparities that impact the health and well being of men, women, and children in communities of color.