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Normal

The word reminds me of “nostalgia,” which presupposes a better time/place/state of mind. When life was good, when people were kind, when everyone knew their place. Ever elusive. Like a sense of “home,” which as soon as one feels it, it vanishes–becomes dark and disturbed. Evanescent. Evanescence.


Words. So many words. We’ve been playing the Times’ Spelling Bee–an accursed game that leads one through promises of ever-growing intelligence (Nice –> Great –> Amazing –> Genius) and the ultimate prize of “Queen Bee” (guessing all of the possible words). So seductive, so comforting.


The comfort of words, games, puzzles, movies, books, music, organized shelves and spaces. These buffer the death, the raging pandemic, the horrifying news. We are meant to be sheltered now. Encased in our homes. Comforted by words. Safe with the normal routine of life in lock-down.


Norming


Normal, norm, normalize


Adjective: conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.Noun: the usual, average, or typical state or condition.Verb: bring or return to a normal condition or state.

In these post-presidential days, I wonder how quickly we can become normalized to the new regime. How soon does Trump become normal? And then I ponder what it means to be normal.


In graduate school we held norming sessions before reading writing placement essays. I always found the concept rather disturbing. We read a few essays then discussed what rating we would give them. The discussion was meant to normalize our ratings. Apparently “norming” is a stage in group development: when the group starts to bond, becomes harmonious, and develops a kind of synergy.


In some ways, norms are good: moral standards, ethical boundaries, etc. But it’s a tricky balance, finding that edge between what society expects (the normal) and maintaining your own sense of self, your own standards. Normal is a safe place. And when the normal shifts, we scramble to find the new normal–fearful, anxious, and volatile until something settles. It’s an uncomfortable place–the non-normal, post-normal, abnormal. Few people like to stay in that place very long. Four years of a presidency can seem like a long time. Five hours of essay reading can seem like a long time. Not to mention twenty years of marriage, thirty years of employment, eighty years of life.


Obsessed


I label my emails. I color-code and file them. Nested, rainbow-hued stacks of tidy texts that belie the disorder I feel every time I open my inbox. My efforts to control the uncontrollable, unstoppable, unrelenting onslaught of messages from the grid.


But see there? I’ve created a three-item list of words that begin with “un.” I like threes: a sense of completion, symmetry, Zen. Feels good. Still, I’m compelled to return to that three-item list and reorder the items into alphabetical order: “uncontrollable, unrelenting, unstoppable.” Ah, that’s better. Fortunately, Gmail automatically alphabetizes labels and sub-labels. Chrome bookmarks do not do this automatically so I periodically have to “sort” them.


I use verbs for all of my tasks in my Google Calendar: draft self-study, contact references, send agenda. But there again, they’re not alphabetized. So, change the verbs or change the time of day I hope to complete each task so that “contact” comes before “draft” comes before “send” comes before “write.” And the colors in the calendar must correspond to the colors in the email. The contrast between categories sufficient to indicate categories: center, department, college, university, etc.


The kitchen fridge list? Alphabetized. Lower case verbs begin each item. The home screen on my phone? Alphabetized. Nine items per screen.


My friend’s daughter washes her hands obsessively; my daughter used to pluck out her eyelashes, I chew my nails, dig at scabs and zits, pick at the dry skin of my heels until I bleed.

But I make sure the three elements in that list are parallel and alphabetized by verb.


Back to normal


Now that the new year has begun, I imagine a gradual return to normal. I’ve pondered this word before, but I still marvel at the comfort some of us take in “normal” activities, a “normal” life, the “normal” progress of politics. Is there really such a state?


The president promised that we would be back to normal by Easter. That was last year. Now it’s this year and that president is gone. The new president hasn’t made such a promise. He’s not that foolish. But here we are, one year on, and whatever we thought about returning to normal–whether it would be sooner rather than later–doesn’t matter. There will be no “return” to anything resembling “normal.”


I’ve ruminated on the concept of normal before and find myself continually returning to the word. Perhaps because the world seems obsessed with normalcy: creating a sense of it, returning to it, institutionalizing it. The elusive place of typicality. Where conditions are usual. Where everyone and everything are average.


What if no one died from the coronavirus, would that feel normal? Or if no one died from gunshots wounds received while shopping at King Sooper’s, working in a massage parlor, or driving along a highway, would that feel normal? Or if immigrants–illegal or not–received compassionate care, would that feel normal?


When I feel “normal” I often wonder what’s wrong with me. The world seems blunted and dull. I plug into my computer and play the working game. On time, in step, efficient, and organized. I stay calm; I complete my tasks; I forget to breathe.



To follow more writing by Becky Jo Gesteland, visit her pages:

Facebook: becky.gesteland

Instagram: jomamabecky

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