Normal?

Lately it seems that every other article or news blurb has something to do with when life will get back to normal. Will it be by mid-summer? Perhaps by the fall? When will life return to what it was pre-pandemic? I am perplexed. Just exactly what was going on before the pandemic that felt like “normal” to people? Is normal a condition that means exactly the same to everyone? Is normal universal? Can it simply be that all “abnormal” is merely about masks and social distancing? Or about whether or not one is able to be in crowds, in restaurants and bars? Or traveling wherever you choose, whenever you choose? Absent these cautionary recommendations by the CDC, can we assume that life was once normal before the advent of the coronavirus? I guess that depends on personal perspective. I chose the furled tulip as my introductory photo to this reflection. On a cold, windy spring day, a tulip organically and quite reflexively furls itself, to shield its most sensitive parts from the elements. They have a better chance of surviving in that defensive posture. Metaphorically, during this pandemic, I too feel furled, although still capable of awareness of the outside world while still in my protected position. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out what normal life was, or is supposed to be, and who gets to make that decision for millions of people.

Tents of homeless people line a street in Washington, D.C., in April.
Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Homelessness has been a major problem for thousands of people, both at home and abroad for years. The pandemic has added a layer of further insecurity to those individuals scrambling to survive and has assuredly increased their numbers. So what’s normal for them? Are they running to Florida beaches, having mask-burning events in their state capitals and talking about how their rights have been abrogated by the government? What does their return to normal entail? More homelessness, hunger and lack of services?

The Guardian

The antivaxxer movement existed long before COVID. Refusing to be vaccinated for this virus is as normal as their refusal to allow any vaccine to be accepted by themselves or their children. I don’t know that they think measles, whooping cough or other diseases are hoaxes, as many believe the coronavirus to be. However, their unwillingness to take their shots clearly is an impediment to achieving herd immunity which is the only way to stop the spread of the virus. As of today, I read that 38 states are reporting rises in new COVID cases. What kind of normal can be achieved with that level of opposition to the only way out of the ever-increasing variants? So what’s their version of normal? Aren’t they still in the same one they’ve always had?

Getty/The Boston Globe/David L. Ryan

As with so much in our society, the perception of normal is defined from the vantage point of economics. For the marginalized poor, going to restaurants, movie theaters, bars, concerts, and on vacations, isn’t the critical issue. For low-income workers, normal is scraping by. Their new normal is unemployment. Will the economic stimulus package be enough to get them employed and above the poverty line? That would be a new normal for them, quite unlike the normal which some financially secure people hunger for, like the return to pleasure travel abroad. The huge gap that separates the wealthiest from the most deprived is only part of the problem. Frustrated, financially comfortable people are pining for their privileges that were part of pre-pandemic life. That’s one version of normal. For others, being hungrier than they were before this silent destroyer showed up is about another normal altogether.

As I ponder from my coiled state, locked inside with my own particular survival skills, I worry about “normal” from emotional and psychological standpoints in addition to economic ones. The isolation and loneliness of this past year will have long-range effects on different people. Some will have a greater ability to withstand deprivation than others. I can’t imagine that most won’t have at least some repercussions from this experience, which I think will go on for a longer time than many would like to believe. How they choose to deal with those repercussions will be driven by individual traits too numerous to specify. And that’s the problem with these endless conversations about returning to “normal.” Nobody knows anything about what that will actually look like – it’s all educated guesses and conjecture.

As for myself, I was still trying to figure out what normal was well before COVID. I was trying to build a life on my own after having been a partner for 45 years. I think it’s a safe bet that if people who know me well were surveyed, they’d all say I never had a normal moment in my life. I can pass for someone who fits into some societally acceptable parameters but I’ve always felt like I wasn’t quite in step with the universe, except for Michael. While I was carving out some reasonable existence after his death, the virus came along and wiped out my little routines that kept me within a passably full life, emptied of what was the center of my world. Those previous years of trying to figure out how to adapt have been somewhat helpful. I’ve survived this unexpected blow pretty well. Recently, after vaccinations, I’ve cautiously crept back into the outside world of other humans although I expect to wear a mask for a long time except in the safest of environments.

Mostly though, my normal is pretty weird. I sleep more like a kid than an adult. I piece together an evening nap with a wee hours of the morning longer stretch. That may be the coincidence of old people sleep habits bumping into my essentially unscheduled life. Having only myself to think about is so odd that I’ve just let certain habits slide away. Like a reasonable bedtime. So far I’m surviving. I eat at no particular time either. It’s pretty liberating although it will be less so if I ever have a more complicated social life. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of my “normal” life is that although I’m certainly present in the current world, like those coiled tulips, I’m curled away from the exterior threats and partially dwelling deep in my interior. Maybe my profound love for the magic realism literature genre has finally become part of the real me. I continue to watch mental reels of my memories which remain detailed and vivid. I’m unearthing new ones frequently which I note in my journals and my continuing correspondence with my dead husband. I wish I could adequately describe the ethereal presence of his essence which feels somewhat like the gossamer webs of tiny spiders. But not in a creepy way. He’s just always here. When I work outside, I love using his favorite tools. I also am delighted by the skills he taught me which give me a sense of competence and wellbeing as I fix and repair my way through the tasks of daily living. As his life was nearing its end, he’d ask me what I was going to do without him. I would reply that I had absolutely no idea. I wouldn’t have dreamed that someone as practical and grounded as I am would wind up having both an internal and external extended relationship with someone I can see only in photos or those movies in my head. All my senses work in those which is especially delightful, even if I’m dreaming an argument. All oddly substantive for a mental creation.

So that’s my current normal which I know with certainty is uniquely my own, as I believe most normals are. The other good news is that mine is flexible, malleable, a living thing as mutable as COVID. Adaptability is a survival skill. The people who have a nimble way of going with the current flow are the lucky ones. The others who are more rigid and locked into their patterns are the ones who have big problems when fielding the tough curveballs that life tosses. So much for a general term that describes who everyone is and what they expect and need. Roll your own if you can. Trying to fit the mold is a thankless task. There is no normal.

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