May 7, 2020

Dear Hope Nation,

I believe in freedom, and in every American’s right to determine his or her own destiny. If, despite knowing all the medical risks, I choose to continue smoking cigarettes, I want that freedom. If I want to ride my motorcycle without a helmet, I want that freedom. If I want to free climb rocks and risk smashing my skull, I want that freedom.

I believe in responsibility, and in every American’s right to determine his or her own destiny. Part of that self-determination is not being infected with a potentially fatal virus. My freedom doesn’t include a right to pass on Covid-19 to you. That is why, for the foreseeable future Hope staff, members and guests will wear protective facewear, not for the protection of the wearer but for the protection of those around him or her. I can’t express my freedom at the expense of your safety.

This requirement, wearing a face mask, seems reasonable to me, to the Hope staff and to public health officials. I don’t like wearing masks—they’re uncomfortable, annoying and make me feel dorky. Still, if I’ve contracted the virus, whether I show symptoms or not, I don’t want to risk infecting you or you or, especially, you. Let me try to explain.

Much of what I know about animals and nature in general comes from Looney Tunes. Based on what I know from cartoons, a sign saying “Duck season” allows Elmer Fudd to shoot Daffy who is verbal and roughly the same size. Based on what I know from cartoons, coyotes order much of what they need from a pre-Amazon company called Acme. Based on what I know from cartoons, rabbits are solitary creatures who thrive on cracking wise and pulling pranks on other species. These things may or may not be true, but they’re what I’ve learned.

Based on what I know from cartoons, canaries are small birds of indeterminate gender, speak with odd and amusing impediments and are beloved by elderly women who protect them from cats. This, I know, is not true.

I know this because I am a potential canary. You are a potential canary. They are potential canaries. We are all potential canaries.

We just don’t know which of us will become a canary.

You’ve likely heard the term “canary in a coal mine,” which refers to caged canaries miners would carry deep underground with them. Given the birds’ tiny size and sensitivity, if dangerous gases built up in the shaft, the canary would pass out and die, giving the miners advance notice to escape immediately. No one knows how many canaries died to save miners. Because of the language differences between birds and humans, we can’t know how the species felt about this practice. I’m presumptuous enough to speak for my species: humans don’t want to die to let others know of danger.

When I came into recovery 12 years ago, I’d spent most of the previous 35 years testing the effects of various chemicals on my body, mind and spirit. In addition to chemical testing , this testing process included a lot of physical and sexual irresponsibility. Luckily, I wasn’t HIV positive, but I was malnourished and had hepatitis-C. In short, I was a mess, a mess that Covid-19 or a bad case of the flu could have chewed up and spit out without a second thought. I wasn’t just at-risk; I was risk itself. And so are many of Hope’s newer members today.

It is the newly clean and sober my face mask protects. It is the elderly in recovery my face mask protects. It is the folks around me with underlying conditions, whether acute or chronic, my face mask protects.

It is, perhaps, you my face mask protects. It may be me your face mask protects. It may be her or him or them, our face masks protect. Whoever needs protection is who I wear a mask for, and when Hope reopens it is the endangered and the vulnerable we will protect.

I believe in their freedom to live. They matter.

You matter. I matter. We matter.

Keith