#17 – february 8: the tyranny of normal

2019. I look back at photos from that time with a bit of wonder. My 50th birthday celebration at a Chicago restaurant with friends who’d traveled from other cities. Our spring break trip to Korea with my mother. The kids’ birthday parties at one venue or another. Our then-6th grader’s first middle school dance. One of the last pictures in my phone, from late February 2020, is of me and an author who’d come to give a talk at my university. The large room was packed. My friend and I stood in line to shake his hand and snap a photo. The author had written about being a stage IV cancer survivor. The chances of coronavirus circulating in that crowded room seems more likely than not in retrospect. Three weeks later, everything shut down. How could we have been so innocent?

Now, as we approach pandemic year 3, there’s a new push for “normalcy,” once again centered on children and their needs. A campaign spearheaded by a group of physicians is pushing for the end to mask mandates in schools, calling their “movement” the “urgency of normal.” They cite statistics about youth mental health that mental health experts have shown to be inaccurate and claim that mask wearing is harmful to children in a myriad of ways, while Covid-19 is nothing serious, not a real threat. Why should children continue to wear masks, the argument goes, when they’re not in danger of dying or being hospitalized?

Here, I’m not interested in debating the data or ethics, as others have more effectively called these “experts” to task for their interpretations, though I find it exasperating that these lines of thought seem to assume that children live in some vacuum free of adults or anyone for whom covid may not be like a “mere” flu. Somehow these children are never considered potential vectors of transmission, only potential victims who should not be burdened in any way by a sense of social responsibility or collective sacrifice.

What I am interested in, though, is this rhetoric of “normal,” the urgency of returning or recovering or restoring it as soon as possible. The people behind this rhetoric have a lot of letters after their names (expertise!) and use a lot of graphs and cite statistics (data!) to push their claims, but ultimately, their appeal is all pathos: we want our children to smile and see the smiling faces of their friends and teachers; our children have suffered enough and we need to do everything in our power to make their world happy and carefree again. The possibility of normal – returning to all the activities and togetherness from before – has a powerful emotional pull. I feel it too. I try to conjure up the feeling of walking into a crowded restaurant with my family on a Friday night, maskless, unencumbered by thoughts of contagion.

At the same time, in the face of these urgent calls for a return to normal, I want to yell, “normal is not coming back!” I don’t mean we won’t ever gather in groups again or have field trips and graduation parties and sporting events. I don’t mean we won’t ever take our masks off in public spaces. No, what I mean is, there’s been a rupture, and after two years of pandemic living, after over 900,000 deaths in the U.S. alone, fundamental assumptions about the future – its predictability, its stability – have shifted, are shifting. The shifting needs to happen: normal wasn’t great for a lot of people; normal needs a lot of work.

I look at my closet full of work clothes – skirts, slacks, blazers, blouses – that I haven’t worn in 2 years. Even though I’m supposed to be back in the office twice a week with our new hybrid schedule, I have very little occasion to “dress up” for work. When I first discovered that moths had eaten holes in multiple sweaters, I was dismayed and consoled myself by ordering a couple of new cashmere ones, soft, warm, perfect for all those zoom calls. Then later, on finding that a moth had eaten a hole in a pair of wool slacks I really liked, I was momentarily sad, and then realized there was no good reason to replace them.

Perhaps for people for whom the pandemic has been mostly a series of inconveniences (closed schools, shuttered restaurants, longer waits for goods and services), rather than devastation (death, illness and disability, joblessness, homelessness), normal seems within arm’s reach, just a matter of pulling the right levers of power to return to standard operating procedure. But even though I haven’t suffered devastation, I can no longer accept that frame of reference. “Normal,” to me, is a moth-eaten fantasy, a collection of formerly functional, necessary, pretty things that no longer serve us.

It’s not just the destabilizing force of the pandemic, but also of climate change and the crumbling of our supposed democracy that spell existential peril. The coronavirus’s global spread, the raging wildfires, hurricanes, and other increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the unchecked spread of misinformation and disinformation: these phenomena all feel connected and mutually reinforcing in their chaotic uprooting of expectations, disrupting our ability to plan or trust in institutions, systems, or each other. The fabric of our society has proven incredibly fragile; the long-term prospects for humanity seem so shaky. In this context, a parent’s email about a slight drop in their child’s standardized test scores is . . . disorienting.

I have to remind myself that fear manifests in different ways. We are mourning the loss of so many things, but not everyone is ready to acknowledge it. I suppose one reaction to all this uncertainty is to cling to the things from before, to insist that we can carry on as normal as if we all knew what that was. I saw a chart on social media of “the last normal school year” for grades K-12, and for K, 1st, and 2nd grade, the answer was “never.”  It’s a very adult-centered perspective, because for the 5- and 6-year olds, school has always existed alongside this invisible virus; they and the grown-ups around them have always worn masks or refused to wear them. This is their normal. Does lamenting on their behalf all the things they’ve never experienced actually help them?

In the HBO limited series Station Eleven, the Before is wiped out, along with most of humanity, in a practically overnight global flu pandemic so that any question of returning to normal is moot. Instead, the drama focuses on how the main characters carve out new life and community while grappling with the trauma of their survival. A central question of the show is what to do with all the memories from Before in the After. Neither one character’s attempt to erase them, nor another character’s preservation of static artifacts turns out to be a viable option. Memories haunt the characters until they can be filtered and transformed through art to forge new connections in the post-apocalyptic present. The plays that the Traveling Symphony theatre troupe puts on allow characters to dialogue with their memories and their pasts. For Kirsten, the emotional focal point of the show, being able to say goodbye, face to face, finally, to someone she loved and lost is what allows her to let go of the weight of the world’s end. In Station Eleven, it’s ultimately not art in the literal sense of plays and books that have transformative power, but art as the acts of generosity and vulnerable openness whose creative forces can repair the damage and carve new paths through the wilderness. There’s no going back, only forward, and what you choose to carry with you can be a burden or a boon.

I found the show a moving allegory for what I’m trying to get at. We need new paradigms for nearly all aspects of civil society: how we work and learn and travel and govern ourselves. The precarity of it all is terrifying, but also maybe necessary for any real change. How do we prepare our children for a future whose premises are no longer given, whose rules for success and thriving are as opaque as ever. What we normalize, what we do or don’t accept as normal, has always been up to us, and if we paused and actually thought about what we want to hold onto, the future could still be beautiful.

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