Dear Normal: Were you really that great in the first place?
Everyone wants you back. It seems every day of this late-stage pandemic era is marked with someone wistfully talking about Normal: going back to you, starting new with you. It’s all about norms and normalcy. All about you.
As for me, I’m not so interested in Normal. I defer to Taylor Swift: We are never, ever, ever getting back together.
It felt normal to want Normal back at first. Last year, in those first months, daydreaming of you was a constant daily escape from all of the endless dire possibilities. I wanted my life back. I wanted the control.
Complaining about commuting or being too busy was the norm in the B.C. (before COVID) era. But in those early days, the mundane was what we craved. Packing into a subway car, grabbing an unplanned drink with a friend, hugging parents, striking up a conversation with a stranger.
And yet all of those Normal desires felt entirely unfathomable. Would we ever be able to go to a crowded space? If we could, would we want to? The answer then felt like a definite no, especially with mortality and death constantly wailing in our ears. The fear of the unknown was like a weighted blanket, but one that provided no comfort or warmth.
It was then that I craved my Normal most.
It wasn’t just me. Over the last year, our obsession with normalcy has shown up on Google, with the highest spike in searches around mid-April 2020, when it seemed we might have been able to resume life as we once knew it.
Searching for normal went up again around the start of the school year in September and around the holidays in late November. But as the search trends show, these desires for normalcy ebb and flow, constantly fading and morphing.
The collective yearning for normalcy was panic-inducing early on, around the time President Donald Trump was vowing to reopen America by Easter 2020. So much had already changed. Yet it felt then that we might just go back to Normal with the snap of a finger.
By June, the pandemic’s staying power was more clear, and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was saying, “We cannot go right back to normal. We need new routines.” Several months later, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said, “We’ll begin to again turn the spigot once more and get back to whatever normal will be.”
By then, my brain was screaming: No way. Do others feel it, too, cringing every time new Normal, old Normal, any Normal is uttered? That to go back to you would mean we don’t question the ways things were, that we ignore the cracks that have been exposed, and that we forget the lessons — good and bad — that have been learned?
The experience of living through the yearlong aberration feels like the rapid-fire history verses of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” — condensed into one tumultuous year. The world shuts down, a racial reckoning, a divisive election. Loss after loss after loss. A previously unimaginable attack on the peaceful American transfer of power. A jittery inauguration. Multiple vaccines — and a glimpse of a world beyond the pandemic.
After living through all that, going back to Normal feels more and more like returning to a lover we just can’t seem to leave.
B.C., adaptability sometimes felt a lot different. It let us recover from jetlag and get used to a new time zone in days, sometimes hours. It let us move from the warming layered looks of winter to — unimaginably — a spaghetti-strap dress when the heat of summer comes. It’s turning a new house into a home.
The past year has given adaptability a new meaning. Many people have a new perspective of their capabilities. Impossible things became possible: Maintaining relationships online and enduring not seeing family and friends, or anyone, for extended periods of time. A whole crop of young people finding grace after being robbed of moments big and small. We got used to it. We normalized the unimaginable.
Now, in late-stage pandemic life, the echoes of this unimaginable life creep into my dreams, leaving me wandering around a packed place like Walt Disney World maskless, or being the only exposed face in a sea of people wearing a mask. “It’s normal,” my therapist told me. “Everyone is having these dreams.”
Well, great — more Normal I didn’t ask for.
The thing about normalcy is that it’s never universal. My Normal is not yours. And because of that, it perpetuates life’s inequalities, many of which have been laid bare by the pandemic.
These are problems that don’t have easy solutions and may not even be solved in our lifetimes. Sure, many people may want things to change. But will they commit to being part of that? Or will it be just like a resolution made at the start of a new year, one that is broken within a month or two?
When we have a green light to start living life again, to enter a new Normal, what will we hold onto from this time? Will we really stay unbusy? Will we care more about work flexibility, employee protections, access to medical coverage? Will anti-racism efforts, once at the forefront of the zeitgeist, be prioritized or forgotten? Will mass shootings become the exception rather than a painful rule?
Will there be any systemic change?
Not likely, “Pandemic” author Sonia Shah said on a recent episode of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.”
“We usually go right back to business as usual as soon as the thing ends, as soon as we have a drug, as soon as we have a vaccine,” she said. “We don’t really do the fundamental social change.”
We’ve already experienced that. When life changed, there was a period of adjustment. It took a while to get used to it. Then we did. That’s happening again right now in the United States as more people are vaccinated and infection rates decrease. Already, the pulls of Normal are tugging.
For all the growth and change and adaptation that has happened in the past year, it is hard to even define what a post-pandemic normalcy might mean. The dictionary defines it simply as conforming to a standard — usual, typical, or expected. Is that really what we want? “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be,” Maya Angelou once said.
Without Normal, the path forward is more open, the opportunities perhaps broader. What if there’s a whole lot of amazing that stands to be lost if Normal returns? What if, instead of banking on normalcy, we focused on that one-of-a-kind ability to adapt and evolve? Maybe that’s the way forward, instead of simply reconciling with what was and trying to recreate something that’s already had its day.
It’s too late, anyway. Remember, Normal: You and me, we already broke up.
Sophia Rosenbaum is an editor at The Associated Press, based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sophrosenba