Life in a Time of Pandemic: What is Normal?

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Before I get started, the usual caveat.  This post will be talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.  If that’s not something you are interested in thinking or reading about at the moment, please leave with my blessing.  I want my readers to take care of their mental health first and foremost.

I’m based in the US, where vaccines are fairly plentiful, and demand is fairly high to get them.  Yes, there are pockets of people who are suspicious, scared, or confused, who are choosing not to get vaccinated, but most people I know are doing so.  My entire family (whoa are old enough) have gotten the vaccine.  I’ve had my two doses, survived the side effects, and am now considered fully protected.  I even have a positive antibody test thanks to a recent blood donation, so I can attest to that part of the vaccine I got actually working.

I’m looking forward to being able to spend time with friends and family who are also vaccinated.  I’m looking forward to feeling safe going to the grocery store or doing other errands.  I’m even looking forward to going back to working in a physical office even though it means having a commute time again.

What I’m not looking forward to is the uncertainty, and the urge to go back to “normal” when that wasn’t a very great way for things to be.  I take public transit to work, so going back to the office means getting back on a public bus.  I’m more worried about that than I am any other part of returning to work.  I take an express regional route, so it’s mostly other commuters like me, who I expect are the kind of people who got vaccinated as soon as humanely possible.  But there are also students and other community members on the bus.  I don’t know if all of the other people on the bus with me will be vaccinated, which means I need to assume they aren’t.  That means masks will remain an important thing for my commute.  While the science so far indicates that I’m at a very low risk of catching or spreading the virus since I’m vaccinated, that chance isn’t zero.

This likely means that my normal is going to look a bit different from before.  I’m going to be taking a later bus into the office and a later bus home.  I’ll be working slightly outside the normal 8am-5pm business hours of my university staff job.  I’ll be eating dinner at the office those days.  The good news is that my boss is willing to be flexible, and knows about my concerns with the public transit and that I can’t afford to park on campus.  Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to because sitting in the car aggravates my back issue more than sitting on the bus does.  (I’m not sure how much I’ve talked about this on the blog, but I have a chronic back issue that causes numbness, tingling, or pain in various places down my leg when a nerve is pinches between my vertebrae.  Sitting is one of the worst things I can do for it.)

So work isn’t going back to normal for me.  My boss is planning for us all to start having some amount of work from home time regularly.  Something like one day a week.  I think that part is going to be quite nice.  Having one day a week (hopefully a regular day that I could then move around if I wanted) when I can not have meetings scheduled, and not have to commute, and be able to focus in on my projects and my own work and focus less on everyone else.

Thinking through the return to the office, and what that means for the routines and good habits I’ve developed over the past year, has me asking, once again, what normal is.

Normal is what we’re used to.  It’s seen as “average,” and it’s seen as desirable by most people (at least for their definition of normal).

Normal is not standard across all people, all cultures, all races, all economic strata, or any number of other demographics or group designations.

Normal is a human construct.

Normal isn’t what’s right, or just, or desirable for everyone.

Normal is what feels routine, familiar, and in many cases comfortable.

Even with all of that, I’m not entirely sure what normal means.  I know what normal used to be for me.  I know what normal is for me now.  I don’t know what normal is going to look like in a few more weeks, months, or even years.

Everyone is talking about getting back to normal, but I don’t want to go back to the normal we had before.  I want wearing a mask outside your house when you are sick to become normal and stay normal.  I want staying home when you are sick (and being paid to do so to encourage that) to be normal.  I want the flexibility and understanding that physical and mental health come first to be normal.

Normal right now looks so different from someone with a front-line essential job that can’t be done remotely.  Normal meant a year of risk, and frustration, and fear.  Normal meant a year of having to try to enforce the local guidelines to keep everyone safe when customers, coworkers, your boss, or any number of others weren’t following the guidelines and were being unsafe.

Normal for me, meant not going outside much, not seeing friends in person, spending a lot of time on Zoom calls for work and for socializing and fun.  Normal meant spending a lot more than 40 hours a week at my desk at home looking at computer screens.  Only 40 hours of it was work, but a lot of my outside of work things also happen on my computer, so there has been a lot of time at my desk, and I’ve had to work very hard to make mental distinctions between work time and not work time.

When restrictions about movement and travel have been lifted, and we figure out what normal looks like again, I hope it comes with clear lines between work and the rest of my time.  I hope I’ll continue to see my friends regularly.  I hope I’ll be able to find new ways to revive old things that I miss but can’t have back in quite the same way as they were before.

So much has changed internally for me over the past year, that I don’t want to go back to the exact same external reality we left when restrictions started in March 2020.  I want my society and culture to have learned from all this.  I want things to be better.

While I might only be able to control a very small amount of what my new normal looks like.  If I do everything I can to make it what I’m hoping for, then maybe I can get close.

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