Was there ever such a thing as normal?
The more I think about wanting to return to “normal,” the more absurd I find the whole concept.
The new year is upon us. Finally.
I sit in front of this computer screen compelled to work out something profound as we bid adieu to a year that has brought us together and torn us apart, made us lose and find hope, scared us, confused us, angered us and often found us wishing time away and saying things like, “I can’t wait to get back to normal.”
I’ve said it myself plenty of times, yet only recently have I really sunk my teeth into what this “normal” actually looks like. And the more I reach to know it, the more absurd I find it.
Because we seem to be holding this “normal” to standards with which we’re sure we recall living at ease, comfortable and certain of what our tomorrow was going to look like, as if that’s a gift we once possessed together. Normal. Is there such a thing really?
The beauty and tragedy of time ticking away the seconds, minutes and hours that make up a life, is that any of those seconds, minutes or hours have the ability to change our course, and change us, profoundly. In 2020, we got to experience that as a nation, as a world, in a sense, collectively.
But collectively, we did not all have the same experience, the same struggles, the same outcomes, the same attitude or willfulness or support or despair. And saying that we’re all in this together, in this “new normal,” felt like a bitter and hard pill to swallow when the numbers didn’t add up and your business had to close. Or your father died. Or you haven’t seen your grandmother in person for months and your children are home from school, but you still need to report to work and there is no one knocking on your door to help you fill in the gaps that these unprecedented times have handed you.
With the exception of some small tasks and ways of living, there has not ever been a universal normal, let alone a universal new normal. But I think we can all agree that what we have endured these past nine months as a country and as global citizens is unnerving, upsetting, heartbreaking, eye-opening and, hopefully, humbling.
And so I’ve taken to reading. Novels and memoirs printed on dog-eared pages with the bed lamp on when the house is quiet like I used to do before our normal was parenthood and overwhelming plans in the works and handheld screens that dictated our schedule and mood and how we tick away the time.
Last night, I turned the last page on a memoir written by a woman raised by a Norwegian immigrant mother in the early 1900s. There were pages about what it took to feed her family, the 200 chickens and trading eggs each week, 20 miles away in Williston, N.D.
There were pages on a father spending the winter clearing a path to and from the one-room schoolhouse where his teenage daughter taught and his younger children learned, and then, when it got too impossible, leaving them there to spend the week, because they didn’t want to risk students arriving alone to an empty schoolhouse.
And then there were pages about the flu pandemic of 1918 and how one woman’s chicken noodle soup delivered by horse and wagon one cold winter evening may have saved a life, and on and on I found new perspective and new gratitude for those who have endured the “normal” that came before us.
So now here’s the best I can do. In this new year, my hope is that we can all come to accept that we are humans who live on constant shifting sand. And once we accept it, perhaps we can find some time to be grateful for it, with the understanding that even though we do not all live in the same state of normal, we have within us the power to be there for one another.
And if we have nothing else in common, that’s one gift we do, indeed, possess together.