The Novel Normal (Isolation: Week 5)

On Sunday I drove for the first time in nearly four weeks. It felt strange. My body was unused to moving along the earth at high speed, cradled in a chair of fake leather, carried in a machine of metal. Every hill and curve seemed exaggerated. I struggled to stay in my lane.

The experience made me think about how we’ve grown used to something so unnatural – our bodies transported, quickly, across surfaces that would take ages to cover on foot. A hundred miles by car, a thousand miles by plane. We travel farther from our homes to get to Ikea than many throughout human history ever traveled in their lifetime.

I was driving to our parish to drop off a casserole I’d made for Our Daily Bread. (Parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore take turns contributing casseroles to the program. Ours does so once a month.) I was glad for the excuse to be out of the house, out on those hills and curves. My brain hardly knew where to settle – even the familiar seemed novel.

I was glad for the excuse to be on the church grounds again. There was all that red brick. There were the flowers and the trees in bloom. There was where we should have walked from Mass to the kids’ faith formation classes. There was where my son should have posed for First Communion pictures and there was where my daughter should have pranced about in her flower girl dress.

There was the building that held the tabernacle that held Him.

On my way home, I stopped in the middle of the road (no other cars to be seen – I promise) to take pictures of a landscape I can’t see from my house. Fields, barns, cattle, a lovely little family graveyard surrounded by a stone wall.

Normal and novel, all of it.

I came home to a family ready to sit down with me to watch online Mass. This time we watched Bishop Barron’s. A previous time, my four-year-old asked if “that pink thing” was part of Bishop Barron’s head.

Picture of Bishop Barron celebrating Mass

All seven of us snuggled on the sofa. Two were very wiggly, passed from mother to father to brother and back again. Normal Mass behavior, a novel way to be experiencing it.

I’ve been trying to think of how to characterize last week, Week Five of our coronavirus isolation. I called the first week a week for shock and the second a week for mourning. I didn’t call weeks three or four anything; they were too scattered. I was too scattered. But in considering week five, I think I’ve got to call it the week for beginning to feel normal.

Not that we went back to feeling the normal we felt before this all began. No, I think last week was when we began to forget that old normal and reside in the new one.

Last week, Week Five, I worked on the house and the meals and I helped the kids with their schooling. One day I’d do well with the former, another I’d do well with the latter. (Not both on the same day. Never both on the same day.) By the end of the week we’d achieved all the essentials, and that was good enough.

Last week the preschooler stopped asking when she could go back to school. The older kids stopped expecting the freedom to play all day. I stopped expecting my beloved afternoon quiet time. We all seemed to have grown used to this novel, unnatural normal.

Except for in those moments. There are still those moments that seem to hold especially still, that last a little longer, that are so very novel they ring louder and clearer than anything else.

I experienced one of them while watching my children participate in their classes’ Google meetings last week. They’re really pretty sweet to witness, until they’re heartbreaking. Kindergarteners are tiny and adorable and attend while holding stuffed animals. You could die from the cuteness. Second-graders are so happy to see each other! They show off their pets. They radiate joy.

But the fourth-graders. Fourth-graders are old enough to have a decent grasp on what’s going on. They ask questions about the crisis. They want to know if they’ll go back to school this year, whether they’ll have to go to summer school, and how they’ll get back the stuff they left in their desks and lockers. One wants to know what it feels like to have the coronavirus.

I hear that question and the moment holds really, really still.

Another moment comes when I read on Monday (bleeding into Week Six here) about Governor Hogan’s acquisition of 5,000 coronavirus test kits from South Korea. I’m stunned. I read that the kits have the capacity to run half a million coronavirus tests – “roughly equal to the total amount of testing that has been completed by four of the top five states in America combined” – and I cry. The moment seems to take every feeling that has deadened over the course of this crisis and whisper life back into them.

I have been convinced that our kids will not go back to school this year, that we won’t see family or friends through the summer and maybe into the fall, and that the beginning of the next school year could be altered too. If that proves not to be the case, I am going to be a blubbering, grateful mess. Even now, at just the hope of it, I cry a messy thank you to the Hogans.

It is strange to be sitting in my room crying with joy and hope at the prospect of returning to our normal lives – our real normal, the one we’ve left behind.

I soak in that still, loud, clear, life-giving moment before getting up and walking downstairs, back into the novel normal.

Picture of the view from the author's car

 

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