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In Search of Normal

This morning we took our two old cars into our mechanic. They both need some routine maintenance, and this seems like a good time to take care of it. I saw a poster on a telephone pole in town offering a reward for information about a lost cat, and I felt sad for the family, searching and grieving for their missing pet.

Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

I imagined, for a minute, posters on every fence, pole and bulletin board in the world, each one imploring for the return of our lost lives, not only those who have lost their lives due to this pandemic, but the “normal” lives we’ve all lost. Is anyone, anywhere, untouched by the coronavirus?

It’s slowly dawning on me that normal is gone.

Normal was different for each of us, but it certainly included jobs, schedules and income. It included being able to get our teeth cleaned, our hair cut, and routine healthcare appointments. Normal was an evening out at a bar, restaurant or the movies. Normal was travel plans and vacations, day care and school years, community and family celebrations and events. Normal was our sense of predictability and security.

Change is always with us, and it’s continued to flow through our lives during the last three or four months, but I’m no longer feeling as though we’ve simply paused for a while before returning to what was.

In mid-March, one day I was at work as usual looking at the headlines during a break and worrying about coronavirus, and just a few days later we were shut down. We knew something catastrophic was happening, and we knew it was one of the biggest events we’d ever experienced, but we couldn’t have anticipated all that’s happened since then. We didn’t know, in those last days, that they were the last days of that normal. There wasn’t time to say goodbye, or have a sense of closure, or wish people well.

I’m not even trying to anticipate what might happen in the next few months, but I’m quite sure “normal” will be absent.

During the shutdown at the rehab center pool where I work (worked?), the powers-that-be decided to renovate. The money had been earmarked before the pandemic, and as we were having to close anyway, I suppose they thought it was a good time to do it.

I understand the logic, but a three-week renovation project is now in its twelfth week or so, and there’s a long way to go. Supply chains are disrupted. Shipping and delivery are slowed. Everything is in chaos, including the contracting company.

We’re longing to go back to work and resume some sort of normalcy, but the facility is not ready, and we don’t know when it will be ready. When it is ready, will anyone come to use the pool? With so many out of work and losing their insurance, will we have patients? Will we be able to open to the public? Will we be able to open the locker rooms, which are presently gutted and nothing but construction zones? Will any of us be able to work normal hours, and if not, how will we manage economically?

Photo by Ev on Unsplash

Will we follow the rest of the country, and open only to close again as the virus surges?

And those are only the coronavirus questions. What about the November election and rising political and social tensions and violence? What about accelerating climate change? What about the collapsing economy, education system, post office, and healthcare system?

What about our failing democracy?

Now and then I wonder if I’m sitting in a movie theater watching a big screen apocalypse thriller, maybe starring Will Smith or Matt Damon. A terrible natural event, an evil AI, or a malignant genius wipes out most of the human race, but approximately two hours of thrilling heroism, special effects and against-all-odds story line save the day.

That’s how we think the story should go. Tight plotting, a clear goal and lots of stunts. An unambiguous beginning and end. Roll credits, bring up the lights, everyone comes back to the real, normal world and gropes for their belongings, feeling satisfied.

Photo by Peter Lewicki on Unsplash

It plays better than it lives, doesn’t it?

I’m not in despair. The old “normal” was good for a few people, but for most of us it was inadequate education, inaccessible and overpriced healthcare, and increasing pressure and manipulation by the Overlords of consumerism. For many, business as usual meant institutionalized racism, sexism, and ageism. Business as usual was destroying the planet. Many of us had no part in the “thriving” economy and very little hope of financial security. Those are not the things I grieve for.

I miss working. Yes, I get unemployment, but frankly, I’d rather work. I miss my sense of contribution to my community. I miss teaching. I miss swimming. I miss earning a paycheck and feeling financially independent. I miss my team and our work, play and training together.

Most of all, I miss the feeling of day-to-day security. I never worried about food shortages, or how many people were in the store, or how close I was standing to someone else. I thought frequently about family and loved ones who are far away, but I didn’t wonder every day about how they’re doing, if they’re taking care, if they’re well. I could count on my weekly schedule at work. I could look forward to eating out now and then, getting a massage, or catching a movie.

The good old days. About twelve weeks ago.

We’re not going to go back. We can only go forward. The world has changed. We’ve all changed. Perhaps some of the current chaos will create a better “normal,” more just, more equitable, kinder. Perhaps we’re remembering we’re social creatures who do best in small, cooperative communities. Perhaps we’re remembering what’s really important in life and thus reducing the stranglehold of consumerism. Perhaps we’re rediscovering our humanity.

Photo by tom coe on Unsplash

Now, wouldn’t that be something?

I wish I’d had time to understand what was happening and say goodbye to it all, but that’s life, isn’t it? I’m only just now really getting my head around the fact that we’ve left the old world and ways behind. Even if the coronavirus is somehow magically eradicated, I don’t think we can resume the old “normal.” Too much has changed, and too many feelings have been felt. Too many eyes have been opened, too much has been said, and we’ve all seen others and been seen more nakedly than ever before. Mask on, mask off.

In search of a new normal. My daily crime.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Second Storm and Quarantine

After a heavy storm on Thursday and an eventful Easter weekend, Monday dawned grey and raw. Our Internet was still down, but I luxuriated in a shower and our usual breakfast, courtesy of electricity, and lost no time in doing the daily bleach wipe down. My sick friend was still sick, but everyone else felt well.

We were under wind and flood warnings from the National Weather Service.

Rain started midday with some wind, but nothing out of the ordinary. The snow, already sodden, lay heavy and sullen and ugly under the intensifying downpour. Our Internet was suddenly restored at some point when we weren’t paying attention. We’d done all we could do to prepare for another power outage, but I washed every dish as we used it and didn’t delay doing anything that required power.

April 14, 2020

The wind gradually rose and the snow on the ground ebbed. The street and our driveway ran with water. Several leaning branches and trees subsided as they were further saturated and the already wet ground lost its grip on root balls. It looked like February, the landscape grey and brown, muddy and soaking in cold rain. The wind gusted and strengthened throughout the day.

During the evening, we had a phone call from my sick friend saying her test for COVID-19 was negative. Good news!

When I went to bed, the power was still on, rain pounding down, wind gusting intermittently.

The next morning, I reached for my bedside reading light. It came on.

The wind had backed down to a breeze and the storm was over, after unleashing about four inches of rain. The snow was gone.

During breakfast, we regrouped. The next several days were predicted to be clear and sunny. We had power and Internet. We needed to assess for spoiled food, and my partner needed to make a town trip. We both had various people to e-mail and call, letting everyone know we were back up and running and healthy. Now that I was in quarantine, I intended to be more vigilant than ever about cleaning and began wearing a mask in the house unless shut away in my private space.

We felt ready to go out and take a closer look at our downed trees and check on the river.

Pond, April 14, 2020

After breakfast, we squelched around our acres, taking pictures and assessing the damage. The river that borders our property was flooded, but it’s well below our house and barn, so we weren’t worried about that. The pond was overflowing and water ran everywhere in streams and rivulets, draining down to the river. The water in the toilet turned the color of tea, stained by tannins leaching into the well.

Wesserunsett in spate, April 14, 2020

I spent three hours transferring all my handwritten work of the last days into my word processor and putting together posts for Our Daily Crime.

After the chaos and barrage of events during the last few days, I was finally able to pause and assimilate coronavirus news, the fact of my own quarantine, and the loss of work. Now I shape a new routine, for a time, at least. The news is full of predictions about how things will change in the weeks, months and years ahead, economically, socially and culturally, but I don’t explore them, because nobody really knows how all this will unfold. I feel better when I stay in the now and let the future take care of itself.

As always, I turn my attention to the most important things: connection with loved ones, being in service or making contributions to others, and taking care of myself, which includes managing my physical health and anxiety.

As an introvert, having to stay home for a 14-day quarantine is a positive pleasure. I am lucky in this, I know. For once, I’m not at a social disadvantage! On the other hand, I very much miss my community and spend time every day staying in touch with friends and family. We’ve now heard that the original four positive COVID-19 people from our building at work have become eight. It’s hard to know what to do with that. Every day we watch and wait, checking on one another, passing on news, sharing our concern and anxiety.

Then came the news that one of the pool staff is ill. His wife works in Rehab also, and they’ve both been tested. This particular pool staff member hasn’t been working for more than two weeks, but he’s one of ours, and we anxiously await the results of testing and further news about him and his wife.

In spite of early Spring’s tantrums of snow, rain and wind, the season is changing in our northern latitudes. We’re all taking great comfort in being outside, aware of how fortunate we are not to be locked down in a city. We are hiking, walking, bicycling, working in our gardens and yards and woodlots. It’s chilly and muddy, and the wind more of a slap than a caress, but the wood frogs are chuckling in our pond, woodpeckers are at work among the trees, squirrels are busy frisking around, and chickadees, finches, sparrows, doves, juncos, flickers and others flutter among the bird feeders. The phoebes dart back and forth along the south side of the house in the mornings, catching bugs sunning themselves. Our daffodils are just beginning to open, and yellow coltsfoot, the first spring wildflower, blooms along the ditches and dirt roads.

Downed maple April 14, 2020

I’m wearing my most disreputable clothes, an old pair of men’s Carhartt canvas jeans with the knee blown out, a holey tee-shirt that both my boys wore before they outgrew it, and a navy blue hooded sweatshirt I used to wear camping, liberally dotted with holes from campfire sparks, the sleeves streaked with pink (who knew navy blue turns pink with the application of bleach?) from wiping down with bleach every day. It’s tick season as well as mud season, and as I rake, prune and walk I intermittently spray my shoes and legs with tick spray.

I’m not wearing a watch or rings because I’m washing my hands so thoroughly and often. I cut and file my nails short every weekend. Earrings are a pain in the patoozie because I’m using a mask, so they’re sitting in a china dish on the bathroom counter.

No glamour here, but then, I was never a fan of glamour to begin with. Right now my comfort is in the cold, heavy mud; the tough, sharp-thorned rose canes; the chilly breeze and periods of thin sunshine; the texture of wood, old leaves, leather work gloves, and our dilapidated porch furniture; and the smell of bug spray. A barred owl flew over our heads as we walked this week. It perched in a tree and regarded us with great dignity and condescension. I was honored.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

We lost five pounds of beef that was waiting in the refrigerator to be turned into beef stew before the power went out. My partner cut it up and threw it on the sloping meadow on the north side of the house, where we throw the dead mice we trap in the kitchen. We have local ravens that check that slope at least once a day, and in a few minutes they came to retrieve and cache the meat. Two, probably a nesting pair, spent half an hour in their muscular aerial ballet, circling, swooping down to the ground and snatching the chunks. I watched them outside my attic window with wonder and delight.

These are the things that sustain my courage and hope.

Life is simple. Words spill onto the empty screen of my word processor. We wake, eat, play outside, walk, read, sleep, and do it all again. I mark off my quarantine days on the calendar. As I write this, it’s day 7. Tomorrow is my brother’s birthday, and I will call him, because we both have time to talk right now.

Watching it all unfold from quarantine. My daily crime.

Jenny, April 14, 2020

Yellow Submarine

At 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning, we park in the dark, empty parking lot and use a combination keypad to enter the building and a key to unlock the door to the pool, re-locking it behind us. We turn on lights, computers and automatic doors. We run a shower in the men’s and women’s locker rooms, as the hot water takes several minutes to reach them and the early swimmers complain of cold showers. We check the temperatures and chemicals in the pools. We peel off our winter layers and put on suits, shorts, emergency fanny packs and whistles. We check the day’s schedule. All the while, a rising chorus of voices and laughter comes from outside the still-locked door where the early water aerobics class is gathering, as though it’s noon and not o-dark-thirty on a cold November morning. The aerobics teacher gets her music ready and checks the wireless headset. This class is large, so she will teach from the pool deck rather than the water.

At 7:00 we unlock the door and they stream in, laughing and talking, tousled heads of grey, white and improbable shades of blonde and brown. Not one of them is under 55. This morning the entire class consists of women. They disappear into the locker room, where the mirth and talk continue as they change and shower. I gather up a rescue tube and get comfortable in the lifeguard chair.

Descending the steps into the pool, the women tease one another and complain about the cold water. Many wear glasses, though they’ve removed their hearing aids . Many wear earrings. A couple of them dispense kickboards, foam buoys and floating foam noodles from plastic laundry baskets on shelves at poolside.

On this morning I count 17 in the class. We know one of them had a birthday over the weekend. The instructor gives her a blue plastic tiara and matching wand from the dollar store while we all sing “Happy Birthday.” She’s informed the tiara must stay on her head during the class. She presses it firmly onto her grey hair, laughing.

The instructor cues the music. I jiggle the dial on the wireless headphones, which never seems to work properly, and the class begins with the announcement of a Beatles soundtrack. “Hard Day’s Night” starts the warm-up to a 45-minute water aerobics workout.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Music is so evocative. I can’t hear The Beatles without thinking of my brother, who owned and played all their albums when we were growing up. These women are a decade older than I am, and they greet each song with delight. They know every word. They bob up and down, kicking, twisting, using the kickboards and buoys for resistance and strengthening in the water. Most are generous-bodied and their bosoms bounce within the confines of their modestly cut suits. I see lime green, pink and black. I see loosened skin and wrinkled cleavage, pink scalp and cellulite while “Revolution” fills the brightly lit, echoing space.

The instructor guides the class from one set of movements to another. They stand in place. They travel back and forth across the pool. They lift, bend and stretch in a circle. We all sing together. They inform each other, soulfully, that “I want to hold your hand.” The water churns with their efforts. “Got to get you into my life!” they shout at one another with hilarious passion.

As I watch, I try to imagine these well-ripened, glorious women as teenagers. I imagine them hearing “Good Day Sunshine” for the first time on radios, records and jukeboxes in diners, in cars and at parties. They were all young once, pretty, idealistic and probably as foolish as most young women are. They had homework and crushes on teachers. They had families and friends and gossiped. The Beatles were part of the soundtrack of their lives. Now, decades later, what old memories, thoughts and feelings do these familiar songs unlock? What stories do they recall, what pleasures, what griefs and disappointments when they hear “All My Loving?”

The very last song is “Yellow Submarine.” By now even I am breathless with laughter. Impossible to hear this music without moving to it, even if confined in a sitting position. The instructor is incapable with mirth. It doesn’t matter. The class guides itself, arms high in the air over their heads, red-faced, panting, dancing in the water. They turn, bump ample hips with one another, gesture flamboyantly, and we all sing at the top of our voices until the music stops and the class ends.

Knowing the routine, the class puts all the equipment away tidily in the sudden quiet. They pull the lane lines back into place and hook them up. They exit the lap pool and move to the 93-degree therapy pool, where they break into groups and chat, some in the shallow end and others floating peacefully in the deep end. The birthday girl is still wearing her blue plastic tiara. Now the talk is more subdued than it was before the class. I hear a discussion about snow shovels, snow blowers, and the performance of various men, hired and otherwise, with these tools. I hear talk of families, grandchildren and plans for the holidays. A group in a corner carries on a low-voiced discussion interspersed with much bawdy laughter. It’s not hard to imagine what they’re talking about. I smile in sympathy. Local news and politics are dealt with, along with the weather, the state of the roads, church gossip, local holiday activities and fund raisers.

Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash

It’s just 8:00 on a Monday morning. These women represent part of the backbone of the community. Seasoned, experienced, humorous and wise in the ways of the world, they know exactly who they are and what they’re made of. They’ve loved and lost, worked, raised families, volunteered, suffered grief, illness and injury. They’re outspoken, earthy and unapologetic. They know how to connect with others. They know how to play and laugh. They are kind and compassionate without being sentimental. They know how to love life.

Monday morning we all lived in a yellow submarine for an hour, and proclaimed it joyfully at the top of our voices.

It was my daily crime.

I wish you all abundance this Thanksgiving.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

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Jennifer Rose
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