It’s happened to me three times now. I mean, quite honestly, it’s probably happened more, but there have been three specific times I remember. The first was in a stairwell, the second in a small shop in town while Christmas shopping, and the third was walking down the aisle at Martin’s. Each time I got a little too close to the other or realized I had been standing in the way so I quickly moved with apology. Each time it was an elderly woman, who I wanted to be respectful of, who I wanted to give space to and make sure they felt comfortable. Each time the woman I skirted around would respond with a simple sentence that gave me pause, “I just wish we could see each other smile,” they each said with a sad laugh. I would respond with something like, “I know, it’s so challenging not to see someone’s face, but I’m smiling under here!”
In those few words, each of these individuals so importantly noted the power held in that genuine upward climb of the corners of our mouth. Some show teeth, some display dimples, for others the skin crinkles to prove years of laughter. Seeing each unique, imperfect, glimmering sign of happiness makes it hard not to feel just a little bit happy to. I think we all miss seeing people smile.
Although they may feel like small changes, smiles are why I’m particularly excited about the April 21 rules that allow for certain unmasked outdoor activities. As our campus reached our 90% vaccinated goal, I am so excited to see people’s smiles again. I’m almost overcome by the idea — the simple act of recognizing another human being in seeing their face, the entirety of their face. It’s a gift.
I guess this means I’ll need to start putting makeup on the bottom of my face again. I think it will also mean being less fearful of waving to that Zoom classmate; I won’t have to worry that they won’t recognize me with half my face covered. I think it will mean looking up and around more often instead of putting my eyes to the ground. I think it will mean more excitement. Listen, I’m not trying to say that being unmasked walking outside will fix everything or lessen the pain and hardship of this year. I’m very much aware we still have a long way to go before we return to a life similar to that before the pandemic. But if this year has taught me anything, it’s to find joy in the small and the simple. There are so, so many things I’ve spent years taking for granted. So many of the simplest pleasures that I’ve overlooked or never quite thought deeply about.
Now more than ever I recognize the power of a smile. The power of genuine brightness that reaches up into your eyes and makes the skin on your face crinkle in different ways. We still may not be able to be physically close to some people, to travel, to hug, but I do see the recognition of someone’s face and the sharing of a smile to be an inspiring step back towards the connection I’ve so often felt missing from this past year.