Searching for ‘New Normal’

Normal (adj): conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected. (google.com)

The sky, full and gray, has pushed down, threatening to touch the earth, each day this week. Everything is wet—the puddled pavement; the red, chenille strands that fall from certain trees and lay sodden and slippery on the sidewalk; the thin young robins, who run when they see me instead of flying.

It has not been the best walking week. But I think of my friend Wendy, that stalwart New England transplant, who says that weather is weather, whatever. She bought herself a waterproof case for her phone after drenching it too many times during rainy walks. She puts the cased phone in the pocket of a rain slicker and heads out anyway, water be damned.

I think of Wendy, and I walk anyway, too. Luckily, the early-early hours have offered, each morning, a sort of safe zone; if the rain doesn’t stop, it tamps way down. As long as my glasses aren’t obscured by rain, I huddle in my jacket and I walk.

And I notice the flowering trees and shrubs, which are, this year, magnificent. In our yard the rhododendrons, ancient bushes that seemed, the last few years, to be failing, have roared back into life. Maybe it was the mild winter; maybe all this rain encouraged blooms. Maybe it was Mark lopping deadwood last year.

Whatever: the bushes are loaded with beautiful magenta blooms, more blooms than ever before.

It’s not normal.

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On Thursday morning, there’s a message on my phone: the books I requested online at the local library are ready to be picked up between 3 and 6 p.m. I get my schoolwork done; I eat lunch with the boyos; I vacuum and I work on this week’s shopping list. And finally, three o’clock arrives, and I head out to the library.

There’s only one other car in the south lot. Kim, one of our favorite library staff, waits, masked and gloved.

I show her my library card, bar code out, through the window.

She takes a picture and texts it to a colleague inside. Then she runs in to get my books.

While she is gone, I open the trunk, glad that the rain has tapered.

Kim comes back with five books in a sturdy plastic bag. She puts them in the trunk and backs off; I jump out and slam the lid shut. We wave and I pull out of the lot. I can’t wait to get home and sort through those books, decide which one to read first.

I haven’t been this excited about getting a library book since I was seven and could finally—finally! My local library made us wait FOREVER!—have my own library card and walk to the library myself, and make my own weekly choices.

This just isn’t normal, either.

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I look in the cupboards and the fridge and I realize I have everything I need to make a peanut butter pie, a little end of the week treat. And Jim has a request: could we have it, he asks, in a regular pie shell (a “flaky crust,” he calls it) instead of a graham cracker crust?

Why not? I say. Let’s see how it tastes. I have balls of pie dough in the freezer; I defrost one and roll it out, bake it golden brown in a small pie tin.

While it cools, I mix peanut butter and cream cheese with confectioner’s sugar and vanilla. When that is smooth and well-combined, I fold in whipped topping, stirring and stirring, until the mixture is velvety, rich, and fluffy.

I take my big rubber spatula, and I push the filling into the ‘flaky crust.’ I smooth it, spreading right to the edges.

I put a matching pie tin, upside down, over the top, and I wrap the whole thing with aluminum foil. And then I put the pie in the freezer, where it must reside for, the recipe says, “…at least three hours.”

Later that night, dinner cleared away, the house quietening after a busy day, we have peanut butter pie. We drizzle Hershey’s syrup onto dessert plates and cut thick wedges of pie to place on top. We drizzle a little Hershey’s on top, too.

I take mine to the table; Mark and Jim take theirs into the TV room.

No one speaks as forks dip and scrape and lift; then, “MMMMMMMMMMMMMMM,” Jim calls.

“GOOD,” echoes Mark, agreeing.

It IS good. It’s different with regular pie crust. It tastes wonderful, even though it sure isn’t what you’d call normal.

But then, this year, what is?

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I’ve told you this, I’m sure, that back in the day, when things were chaotic (as they often were), my mother would make promises. “We’ll go,” she might say, “when things get back to normal.”

She would count a beat, like a savvy comic, then add, deadpan: “Whatever THAT means.”

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Because really, what IS normal? A friend in the mental health community maintains that “normal ain’t nothin’ but a setting on a dryer.” I long, in these COVID days, to get ‘back to normal,’ as if it’s a place I’ll return to.

And I know, deep in my knowing, that there is no going back.

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But even in calm, healthy, unmemorable times, the days are not really normal,–not same or typical or immutable. What’s normal is that things are, always, changing. We get things lined up just the way we want them, the job, the house, the family, the clothes, the car.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…we say. Just right.

And life is good.

But then…

The industry changes.

Enrollments fluctuate.

Technology morphs and things that were once essential become anachronisms.

And the job we loved just…vaporizes.

OR: we get the degree or the certification; or the company loves us and wants us to transfer to a bigger plant, to a more important position.

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Which means we’re moving, for joyful reasons or sad ones, so the house goes on the market.

But maybe this time, we’re going with one less person, because that beloved child is 21 and in her own apartment, happy in her own job, with her own friends…in her new normal. We’ll need one less bedroom in the new place.

And we’ve been so busy we lost weight; or we’ve been stress-eating and gained weight. The clothes don’t fit.

And when did the car get so old? With all this traveling, we might be better served to buy a hybrid anyway, or to get a truck so we can transport big stuff back and forth…

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Wait. What’s normal now?

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On Thursday, Jim gets two email messages about jobs. He forwards them to his job coach, who emails back: I don’t think these are requests for interviews. I think these are job offers.

Normal for Jim has become being at home, trying to keep busy, embarking on projects, trying not to think of what happened to his job hunt in COVID days.

And now…

He is excited. He walks a little straighter.

“I’d better get a haircut,” he says, and he looks ahead to a life that could be anything but the old normal.

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I get an unexpected job offer, too; it’s a chance to work with people I admire and respect, and an opportunity to do good work in the community.

“I’m going to need some grownup clothes,” I say to Mark, as if clothes are a measure of change. Like Jim, I am excited.

Life is changing in some ways that are good, even while we try to balance on the fulcrum between personal growth and a disease-ridden world.

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A friend texts about a young man she knows who had a car detailing business, which, in the pandemic, ground to a halt.

And then he thought to morph his work into a car sanitizing business. Now he’s busier, maybe, than he was before, having quite deliberately changed his normal.

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Meat prices sky rocket; gas prices stabilize. We talk about shrinking the meat we eat and growing the side dishes, the veggies, the soups and the casseroles.

I go three weeks without needing to pump gas.

Restaurants cautiously open, but none of us have any desire to eat out.

We order groceries online and set up a pick-up time. We’ll keep getting our groceries this way; we save money and we save time.

We shop at a locally owned meat market, and we mask up and go to the farmers’ market on Saturday morning.

Some things are missing from supermarket shelves, and I order them online. I get a brick of yeast. I get a gallon jug of vanilla extract. I get a three-pound tin of baking powder.

We used to hunt and gather one way. Now another is evolving, and we won’t be going back to normal. But the way we do things now will begin to seem normal.

Until they, too, have to change.

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And through it all, we’ll remember this: people are sick. People have died. Lives and families and communities have been irrevocably changed.

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Joan Chittister writes in The Gift of Years, “It isn’t that the changes aren’t difficult. Of course they are. It’s only that, for my own sake, difficult as they may be, I cannot allow them to become terminal. Life goes on, and I must, too—but how?”

And she talks about styles of coping.

There are those who refuse to admit that any change has happened. They become angry and remote; they lose touch with a life that swirls on by.

There are those, writes Chittister, who allow that change has happened, but they are not happy. They function, but “…they begin to punish the world around them for the situation they’re in.” Everything that’s happened is somebody’s else’s grievous fault. “Their souls,” writes Chittister, “spoil in their shells.”

Other people may seem to move forward, but wherever they land just doesn’t measure up. Nothing is as good as the old days, and these folks keep looking for, and never finding, a way to return to their lives before.

And there are those, she writes, who embrace change, who respond to difficulties with what she calls “aplomb and courage.”

“They handle pain,” writes Chittister, “by replacing it with new joys.”

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I am seeing, as our world visibly changes daily, all of these responses. I see all of those responses in other people. I see all of those responses in ME.

Normal is gone; normal will never come back. I have to build New Normal to replace it.

And I have to realize that as soon as New Normal is built, it begins to change, to evolve, and to decay.

I want to be the last kind of person, acknowledging the pain of loss, but brave enough to embrace new joys. I hope that I will do that most days, because I know this: normal is gone, and change is happening.

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I go walking in the morning, and the rhododendrons are even fuller and more beautiful than they were yesterday.

There must, I think, be hope.

If You See Normal, Tell It I Said ‘Hi’

A young wife and mom I know, a former student, spoke recently at a training for those who love and care for people with mental health challenges. This young woman–let’s call her Elizabeth–told the group about her childhood.  Elizabeth grew up with a mom with mental illness, a mom who loved her dearly but who, when things got beyond coping, would just go into her room and check out of life for a while.  She’d leave the kids  a note that might say something like, “You kids are on your own. I’m tired of waiting on your ungrateful little selves.”

Elizabeth, who has a big personality, outspoken and strong, would go and stand at her mother’s bedroom door.

“You get OUT here!” she would yell. “You come and take care of your children!”

That never worked, but in a couple of days, the mom would re-emerge, rested and ready to cope again. Then life would be fine for a while, until the stress built up to the sticking point, and the next note appeared on the kitchen table.

“I always thought that was normal,” Elizabeth said. “I thought everybody’s mother had her disappearing days.”

Then Elizabeth grew up and got married. After the birth of her baby, she plunged into a depression that did not, for a year, dissipate.  Instead, other troubling symptoms arrived, and Elizabeth finally came to realize that she, like her mom, was mentally ill. Her treacherous journey to recovery and independence leads her to advocate for others who haven’t yet completed the trek. It leads her to understand her mother, with whom she remains very closely tied.

Elizabeth told her story, last week, with verve and laughter and poignancy. The group of care-givers pelted her with questions and comments, to which she responded with honesty, humor, and self-respect. When she took her leave, the room suddenly seemed empty, as if a huge force had just ebbed away.

The people gathered were quiet for a moment. Then one of the women said, “Wow.” She paused and then added, “She seems so NORMAL.”

My colleague and I looked at each other, balancing how to respond to that. But my knee-jerk, uncensored thought was, “Well, thank God she’s not.”

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I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘normal’ ever since, about what it means and where it happens and about whom it might describe.

I think of my mother, talking to me over morning coffee, after her prayers were said, when she was waxing a little wistful.

“Maybe,” she would say, “when things get back to normal, we’ll paint the living room.” Or: “Maybe, when things get back to normal, we’ll go visit Annie’s kids in California.”

I grew up hearing that ‘back to normal’ refrain from my mother, and I always wondered when things had been normal. I thought, at first, it must have been before me, because I couldn’t remember it.  I was born, and from then on out, things were never normal. But someday, things would go back to being that way.

I looked forward to learning what exactly that meant.

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I think of my son James, dealing with his own diagnosis as a young teenager, waking me in the middle of the night to plead, “I just want to be normal. How can I be normal?” And knowing what he meant, but not being able to assure him that, someday, yep, Buddy, you’ll just be a ‘normal’ kid.

And then I thought, but who’s to tell us what normal really means?

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I look up normal in an online dictionary and it says this:

Normal, the noun, means “…the usual, average, or typical state or condition.”

In its adjective form, normal means conforming to a standard, usual, typical or expected.

Normal, I kind of think, sounds a little bit boring.

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But, if you use that definition, then Elizabeth’s childhood days WERE normal; they were normal for her family. It was expected that her mother, when life got too chaotic, would retreat to her cave. It was typical that the kids would band together, making meals, getting clean clothes for school, covering for their mother’s temporary absence. It was usual for Elizabeth to pound on that bedroom door, demanding an audience. And her mother’s eventual return to active life: that was a given, too, a standard.

“Gosh, that’s not normal,” someone might say, but it was. It was normal for them.

My mother had a ‘normal’, too, only her ‘normal’ might mean your ‘unsettled.’ Her family was together until she was four, when her mother died, and her father, shortly afterward, left his seven children alone. The eldest, Jim and Annie, were 16 and 14; they quit school and raised their siblings.The little troupe moved many times during those Depression days. Never settling in became normal to my mother. Never having quite enough to eat. Always having clothes that were a little bit odd, a little bit different, gleaned from charity boxes. They made it through, miraculously, but they struggled.

Struggling was their normal.

Later, when my mother met my father, and they got married, I imagine the two of them thinking, “Oh, God: finally. Love. Home. Normal.

And then: World War II erupted;  my father was drafted less than two months after the wedding. That must have felt normal, to my mother, too: the important people seem to have to leave, don’t they? She and her baby, my oldest sister, followed Dad as long as he was based in the States, but when he was shipped overseas, she went to stay with friends in Ohio. Where my sister died, with my dad far away. They say my mother just about died herself, from that much normal.

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And Jim has a normal too: days filled with writing and reading and the watching of movies, with organizing and rearranging and time at the computer. And just lately, with the onset of a new small business launch, he has hours of independent industry. He likes to accompany me to work and take up a spot in a small study room, where he works away, his fingers flying over his keyboard. When he’s flush, he’ll treat himself to lunch at the College cafeteria. He chats with my colleagues when he sees them in the halls. At home, after dinner, he searches to find a series we all like so we can watch an episode or two together in the evenings.

He doesn’t like to party; he’s terrified to drive. But he has a normal, Jim does. It’s his normal; it’s not like anyone else’s.

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When we say,’That’s not NORMAL,’ we mean, really, it’s not ordinary, or, I think, regular. We mean, this is not a lot like everyone else’s. We mean it’s not average, and it’s upsetting or weird.

We say it like being normal is a good thing–like it’s THE thing.

But I think of the people we remember from history, the ones who made a difference: I think of Abraham Lincoln, who was too tall and probably depressed and didn’t really win any elections until he became president–Lincoln with his high, nasal voice, and his weird southern wife and the two of them grieving for that little boy who died. Lincoln navigating a country through a Civil War, finding the words to say as his train charged toward Gettysburg. Lincoln with his folksy tales and homespun education and scary premonitions.

Let’s face it: that man wasn’t normal.

And think about Mark Twain, with his white suits and his stogies and his stories, his acerbic wit and his lifelong feuds. Or how about Einstein, showing up, splendidly dressed at an awards banquet, then sitting down to let his pants ride up and show off his hairy white ankles? The genius who always forgot to wear his socks. What of Eleanor Roosevelt, with that remarkable voice and her gender-bending friendships, and her vast influence on an important presidency and a country’s civil rights? What about Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi; what about Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen and John Lennon?

Please. NONE of those people are exactly what you’d call normal.

Thank goodness.

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It strikes me that normal sounds restful and safe and like a haven; it strikes me that normal is probably not what, or where, any of us, really, wants to be.

This is not to say that being ‘not normal’ is easy.

It is not easy to be mentally ill in a place and time that writes you off when you surface with a diagnosis and a behavior that’s quirky and distressing.

It is not easy to be developmentally delayed or to have a physical impairment in a society that prizes perfection.

It is not easy to be a woman in a political arena that treats women with utter contempt.

It is not easy to be a person of color, or a person of an alternate gender, or even a person of an advanced age, in a biased society that cannot recognize its own biases.

It’s not easy–but it is normal for those people so placed. And for all of those people, and all the other people whose differences I didn’t mention, there is the possibility of a rich and meaningful life–a life of contribution and love and accomplishment.

It is hard, I think, to be ‘not average.’ It is hard to be outside the boundaries, to be reminded, everyday, of where you don’t belong. But. Those are the folks who change things. Those are the folks who invent and create. Those are the folks who start the movements and win the freedom that the next gen’s normals take for granted.

Those of us a little far from center–we have a chance, I think, to make a real difference.

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This has been a week of startling surprises, a week when we have to wonder: what will the new normal look like? Whatever it looks like, it’s not an end to striving or growth, or to beauty and progress. Challenges may be greater; we may have to cast our net more broadly. But there’s opportunity lurking in the haze.

And to create, as a troubled, heartsick, nation, the possibility from the improbability, we need all our voices. We need the farthest out, fringiest voices to join the chorus, to pull us out of the slough. Our definition of ‘we’ needs to expand and expand and expand.

The gift of this week, even in our fear and distress and trepidation, may be a whole new, more inclusive and more caring, definition of normal.