When I last put a blog post out into the world, twenty-two days ago now, I reflected on the aspects of life during shelter in place that I would miss should it end tomorrow. Interestingly enough, I now find myself missing some of those very things I mentioned, even though I still am living under the same stay at home guidelines. Turns out this quarantine didn’t need to end for some of the conditions I was enjoying to once again change. Everything is temporary. As we so often hear these days, situations are fluid. Among other things, the abundant sleep I somehow managed to mercifully enjoy in April is once again pretty elusive, but man, was it nice while it lasted!
For me the month of May has been full of frequent reminders that this most assuredly is not going to all end tomorrow. My gratitude practice of noticing and thinking about what I would miss about today is still helpful, but coping in 2020 requires a pretty extensive tool box. It seems I am always on the lookout for new and improved “hardware” to add to mine as one tool simply won’t do the job. Which brings me to the idea of word choice and some of the phrasing I hear an awful lot of lately. Words have a powerful impact on our thinking. I’ve found myself considering how the mere mention of some words and terms can elicit certain emotions, especially negative ones. One phrase in particular seems to be upsetting people quite a lot these days: new normal. I’ve been thinking about why hearing these two words together at this time is disconcerting for so many, myself included.
“We have to adjust to this new normal.”
“I refuse to call this normal. Nothing about this is normal.”
“Wearing a mask is not normal.”
“Staying home and not interacting socially with friends is not normal.”
“Keeping six feet of distance between people is not normal.”
“Not being able to live our lives like we’re used to is not normal.”
It’s not. None of it is.
When I started reading more and more social media posts with people expressing frustration and even anger with the term new normal, I found similar thoughts nagging me as well. It made me consider the damage that could be affected simply by continuing its use. Could we be discouraging others from taking temporary precautions that could help save lives by unintentionally making people fear these conditions could last forever by something as basic as the words we use? I wonder.
Perhaps some people think that by calling it a new normal it will serve to truly normalize these conditions we need to live under right now? Maybe the thought is that since we must make these changes for the common good, calling it a new normal promotes embracing the shared practices that are needed? Or most likely, not much thought has gone into it at all, and it’s just a convenient term to throw out there given the circumstances with which we’re dealing. I realize not everyone ruminates on these things nearly as much as I do.
Whatever the case, I hereby propose for the sake of our collective sanity (and more personally for my own) that we consider using the phrasing current reality in its place. Let’s try it out, shall we?
“Wearing a mask is our current reality when out in public, but it won’t be forever.”
“Wearing a mask is not comfortable, and there are scientific arguments for and against its effectiveness. But there’s so much we still don’t know about this virus and its transmission, so I will wear one as an act of kindness and care since since this is our current reality. We won’t have to do this forever.”
“Because of our current reality, I can’t attend the concert festival this summer that I had hoped to enjoy. I look forward to when venues open up again!”
“This current reality dashed our hopes of celebrating my child’s graduation. We will figure out a way to celebrate at a later date.”
I could continue, but you get the idea. Feel free to throw in a couple of examples yourself for practice. Using this replacement term is useful for me, perhaps you might find it helpful.
I’m writing these thoughts on day 70 of my family’s retreat into our home. 70 days feels like a long time. Numbers have been an interesting little diversion for me over the course of these weeks. I noted when it was day number 23 as it made me think of Fiona in Shrek the Musical singing while in isolation in her tower guarded by the dragon. When it had been 40 days the biblical references struck me, and I pictured Noah and his family emerging from the ark with all the animals. After binge watching the miniseries Waco on Netflix, I later noticed when we hit day 51 and had been in our house as long as the Branch Davidians were engaged in their standoff with the feds at their Mount Carmel complex. It seemed like they were held up in there forever! And I remember that news cycle in ’93 and how lengthy it seemed before the ultimate tragic ending. We have been sheltering in place longer than that siege. I can’t help but wonder how many more notable numbers are still ahead while I check off these days on the calendar.
Yes, some days the return to normal feels like an interminable wait. But this is not forever. This is our current reality; current meaning for now. I can deal with now. I can focus on this moment and what I need to do to make it tolerable. I can take deep breaths. I can go for a walk outside and get a needed change of scenery. I can practice gratitude and reframe my thoughts when they take a despairing turn. I can take a nap when lack of sleep and too much Zooming has drained me and I just need a short, good cry and some restorative rest. I can text a friend who will write a word of encouragement that will bring a smile to my face once again. There is nothing I can do about a single thing beyond this solitary moment. But in this moment I have choices and actions I can take to make it bearable. Then the moments begin to string together, and I find that the choices become learned habits that serve to sustain me through a difficult time that is longer than I ever would have wanted this to be had I any control over it.
Being a teacher, I can tell you that nothing about my job feels normal right now. And I most definitely will not call the current state of education a new normal. There is so much I miss about face to face, non-electronic interactions with my students and the energy of being in a classroom. If I ever needed confirmation that I love teaching and I want to remain in the profession for the long haul, abruptly being taken out of the classroom in March confirmed it. I will not try to wrap my brain around remote teaching being the new normal. I can much more easily accept that it is our current reality, and one to which I need to and will adapt and remain flexible for the duration, however long that may be. One day at a time is not just a sitcom I loved in the 70s. I have to live in the space of taking one day, one hour, one minute at a time more than ever before. It’s manageable that way.
It’s Memorial Day weekend, and normally this is the weekend I would be exhaling after finishing state testing, wrapping up Open House, and most of the academic assessments that close out a school year. This is when I would shift into cruise mode and enjoy the rest of the year with my class as we would have days filled with science experiments, enrichment projects, all school Olympics and other end of year activities with lots of joy to close out our time together in the classroom. Instead, three intense and hectic weeks of distance learning are still ahead, and they promise to be nothing like any other end of the year I’ve had in my 24 years of teaching elementary school. For one, our current reality has made the classroom check-out process a whole lot different for public schools with steps that must be taken to sanitize classrooms and prepare for what school in the fall might look like. Again, it’s all still fluid. There is no one certain plan for what school will look like when the 2020-2021 school year begins for my district in August. It will not be a new normal. It will certainly not feel normal. It will be the current reality to which I will need to adapt. One minute at a time. One hour at a time. One day at a time. Those not in education can list the myriad ways their industry or field has been affected by our current reality. One of the only things in life of which we can be certain is that things will change. Always. Pandemic or not.
As I think about cleaning out my classroom and removing everything from its walls, I am reminded of an inspirational poster that has been hanging on one of my cabinets next to the white board that still has the date of Friday, March 13th written on it. The poster says, “I can do hard things.” I can refuse to call something a new normal, yes. I can reframe it as accepting a current reality and take steps to live in uncomfortable moments by using tools and cultivating habits that help me endure. What I cannot do is deny the necessity to live differently during this time. And this is a hard thing.
I cannot allow my own personal discomfort and deep desire for normalcy and the life and activities I love to blind me to the need to do these hard things and make some temporary changes required by our current reality. For me, this isn’t only about complying with directives to wear a mask while shopping or out in public spaces. It isn’t just respecting the personal space of others that now extends a full 6 feet or more, and minding the arrows that now direct me down the grocery aisles. It is about modeling flexibility, kindness, courtesy, and ultimately humanity for my own children and my students to observe. This is not easy, it is genuinely hard work. Circumstances like the ones we now face haven’t been experienced in our world for a century. And they have never been faced in a world with social media and fast access to all kinds of information and disinformation at all times. Maintaining calm, balance, and empathy can become a Herculean task in the face of it all.
Much has been said lately about living in fear. I’m not going to tread much into this discussion because it quickly ventures into some fairly divisive territory. However, I am going to suggest that the most repellent aspect of the phrase new normal is the fear it evokes in my mind when I allow my thoughts to briefly wander into the zone of, “What if we have to live like this forever?” Talk about fear-inducing! There is absolutely no good that comes from speculating and forecasting into the unknown future. There is no reason I should begin trying to integrate the idea of a future filled with masks and social distancing, attempt to accept it as normal from here on out, and dwell on that line of thinking. I am personally not in the camp of being overly suspicious of the experts, so I will leave the projections and speculation to the epidemiologists who know much more about what we can expect for the time being. Instead I will focus on what I can control, my thoughts. For now, these changes to which I willingly adapt are done with compassion in light of our current reality. That is what I know today, now. That is all I need to know. In my choice to embrace these compassionate acts, I feel no fear.
Some final thoughts while engaged in this whole new normal vs. current reality rumination. Frequently when hearing and reading people disparage the current state of affairs and responses to COVID-19, I also hear comments like, “I refuse to live like this. This is not living.” There are many reasons that comments like these trouble me, especially the latter. First I must say I have had these thoughts go through my own head as well, so no judgment intended in any way. We’ve likely all been there. But these kinds of thoughts tend to shake me back into the reality that every single day above ground is a good one, or it can be. My early twenties were marked by huge losses for three consecutive years; the loss of my dad being the third and most personally devastating. That shattering time served to convince me that this life, even when at its most crappy, is indeed a gift. Every day I’m breathing is living. It’s up to me to choose to put life into it, no matter the circumstances in which I find myself; no matter what may have been temporarily (or even permanently, as in the case of my dad) taken away. What I allow into my thoughts plays a big part in helping me shape that quality of life. Furthermore, my children are watching how I respond to life when it is not ideal. My response affects their quality of life. The way I respond will become their model for how to navigate the world when things get very hard. I want them to know and experience that life can be rich even under difficult circumstances that we would never choose. I want to help them learn through this far less than ideal current reality so that they will be ready for the ones they will inevitably face in the future.
I’ll leave you with some words from one of my favorite authors, Kelly Corrigan. Her book, The Middle Place, about her unique and beautiful relationship with her dad resonated with me deeply and makes the short list of my favorite memoirs. A later book, Glitter and Glue, focused on her relationship with her mother and daughters and is another one I highly recommend. In that one she wrote of her diagnosis and battle with stage 3 cancer. I follow her social media, and this week a reader took a picture of a page of the book in which Kelly described her response to the initial diagnosis. The reader then shared her own notes on the page, written this week.
In her post this week, Kelly responded to her reader’s photo saying, “There’s just no getting around it: Whatever it is that may be unfolding, this is it. This is our life, our great adventure, our mystery to be lived.”
Regardless of our current reality, may we live our lives well. This is it. This is living.