There’s Nothing New About Normal

I do not want a new normal. I crave an eradication of the concept of the norm. Normal is built upon exclusion and status quo. I ache for renewed curiosity — to live fully, in ways that don’t require measurement against a template, obliterating the binaries that were constructed to allow for one group to more easily dominate another.

Ask me questions, give me space to grow, come eat mochi with me at my kitchen table.

***

It is late June of 2021. I am waiting for an elevator to take me and my towel-wrapped daughters back to our fifth-floor hotel room where our dog awaits our return. We have just been liberated from a 12-hour car ride and they have been enjoying the pool while I have been sipping the rooftop bar’s Mezcal-based cocktail. Next to us stands a group of grey-haired white people, dressed in plain slacks and crisp polos and blouses. One of them asks why my children are masked.

“They’re too young to be vaccinated…” my voice trails off. “There is a global…”

“Don’t you DARE vaccinate them!” The woman who says this leans in. I see powder and pale blush, pooling in the creases of her unmasked face.

I knew this moment was coming. I didn’t know the where or the how of it, but as we packed our car to the brim with clothes and snacks, downloading enough audiobooks to get us through the first days of the drive from Massachusetts to Washington state, I knew we would encounter some version of this woman. The only surprising part was that it took until Montana to happen.

“Have a good night.” I wave the group towards the open elevator doors, signaling that we will wait for the next one, something I likely would have done anyway given the pandemic.

The girls have a few more minutes to drip dry in the mountain air. My eldest, newly eleven, looks at me with concerned eyes. She is not accustomed to seeing me admonished in this way, later asking why the woman had such a strong reaction. The baby, who is five, leans her head against me as she grips my hand. She understands more than her body language reveals.

***

I have never considered myself patriotic. From the rote recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of every elementary school assembly, to the preponderance of flags waving on the Fourth of July, I’ve come to associate patriotism with rituals and holidays that have never felt inclusive of me. That were built on oppressive foundations. I know that some people view social justice activism as its own form of patriotism. And while I agree when James Baldwin says, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually,” I can’t shake my association of American patriotism with individualism. And what I yearn for, what I find most lacking in my life these days, is a collective. A genuine embodiment of Fannie Lou Hamer’s “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” I am a person who likes to build community, and so it’s hard to feel rejected by, or not at home in, places where I’ve tried to do just that. Sometimes I feel this way about America itself.

***

My mother immigrated to the U.S. in her late twenties from Tokyo. She arrived with an open-ended return ticket and the singular goal of passing the competitive audition to become a Weeki Wachee mermaid — which she did, becoming the first mermaid of color to swim in the cool, clear waters of the then thriving theme park. Years later, after returning home and meeting my white American father in a Tokyo bar, she married him and emigrated for good. Though she has lived in New York City longer than she has in Tokyo, she remains a green card holder with no desire to become a U.S. citizen. She uses the word “American” as a synonym for “white.” This verbal inaccuracy is one of the many ways she has internalized what is considered the norm in the close to five decades she has spent here. My mother’s voice runs through my head when I ponder what, if anything, unifies us— what we who claim the word American among our identifiers might share.

I would often correct Mama, explaining that people of all races can be American. Lately I’ve stopped. There is a truth to what she is saying, even if it’s not what she means.

***

I used to view leaving New England as a panacea. That shaking off the chill I feel in this place I have lived for 15 years but will never concede the signifier “home,” would somehow make everything okay. Instead, I stay. I still fantasize about constructing a cluster of tiny houses with my chosen family of friends and escaping there often. But more than that I crave feeling seen. Those moments when a text or a call from a friend fills my eyes because of how plainly they are reflecting parts of me back to myself, showing me who I am in a place that often succeeds at obscuring this vision. My people are scattered throughout the world; I remember when we were effortlessly concentrated and how I took for granted the ease with which we could gather.

Teenage clusters in my high school courtyard. Platonic snuggles on the twin XL beds of my college classmates. Summer camp nights under a tarp in the Pacific Northwest. Even the un-masked days of the not-so-distant past. Are they pure in my mind because of the filter of time, or because those were times when community lived up its meaning? Like anything, I know it is a combination of both. We clung to each other because we could, and we were all too willing to be vulnerable, to share new iterations of our still-forming selves.

Today I endure dinners and school functions where the conversations never penetrate deeper than pleasantries. It’s a version of masks we all wore long before the cloth and surgical ones that help stave the spread of the latest variant. New England mores are a factor, yes, but so are age and socioeconomic class, and I have climbed in both. We tsk-tsk the cumulative injustices of the circles we inhabit, rarely naming our contributions. I used to bottle up then burst forth when enough rage or alcohol paved the way. I’m getting better at naming things in the moment, working to more regularly share the things that course through me. I write and teach about systems of oppression, sometimes for a wide audience, but find it hardest to disrupt in my intimate circles. That is my complicity. I wish others could see theirs. I wish we could call each other out.

***

The day 5 to 12-year-olds (including my three daughters) are finally eligible to be vaccinated, there is so much activity across my mom groups’ chats: where to book (Did you get a slot?), when to get in to be fully vaxxed by December break. Vaccination feels like yet another iteration of what I have come to know, and loathe, about many of my fellow parents. The need to be first, to get “the best” for one’s kids at all costs, to post the perfect (post-jab) photo to Instagram. I am eager to get needles into my daughters’ arms, which I know is the right thing to do, but I get swept up in the mad race, despite myself. I stay up late into the night refreshing my browser, trying to get them appointments, to no avail. I throw my phone across the couch, disappointed in myself, not because I didn’t secure an appointment but because I know they will still get vaccinated long before so many in the U.S. and beyond. I am, again, wishing for something different that I can’t quite articulate.

***

For close to two years my world has been flat. Because of the privilege of jobs that my partner and I were able to move remote, I have not set foot in a workplace or hosted anyone in my home since Covid made landfall in the U.S. Most of my friends and colleagues have been reduced to faces on a screen, rectangular boxes with backgrounds that have grown so familiar. I notice when people are not in their usual Zoom spots or have put up a new digital background. But we have been flattening each other long before early 2020. I rely on social media to keep me up to date on who has moved, partnered/unpartnered, or added children and pets to their lives, but I am increasingly alarmed at the battles that rage — stoked by a lack of actual dialog — in the ever-spiraling comment sections and threads. I can’t help but fall down rabbit holes of sub-threads and escalating exchanges. But I draw the line at participating. I save my energy for other tactics. When we reduce others to the words they type with two thumbs, often in heightened states, we are not seeing each other. We judge typos and autocorrects as if they are character flaws. We lack curiosity.

I am not defending Internet trolls, or those who come online with the goal of tearing down others. I know the pain that results from virtual encounters where I wasn’t my best self. Where I caused harm, I have worked hard to make amends. I have been implicated in rupturous conflicts that emerged in this 2-D world we are building as we go. Jobs lost, friendships ended, families fractured. Flattening has been an expediting force.

Whether or not we ever emerge more fully from a world bound by virtual rectangles, I hope that my daughters won’t be reduced to others’ interpretations of the photos they post on social media. That they are not dragged into comment section discourse that goes nowhere. I hope we can listen for nuance, and extend grace where accountability is genuine. There are models of this, and have been for centuries, they just haven’t been the norm in a settler colonial America.

***

The day my girls get their first shots, I stay awake too late catching up on writing, and trashy TV, and life. When I finally get off the couch to go to bed, I check my phone one last time. A friend has posted a video to one of my camp friends’ group chats. In it, a TikToker walks through someone’s home speaking to the camera, “Real quick, if someone sent this to you, three things: One, they are proud of you. Two, they love you. And three, they are cheering for you. They are on your team.” I smile. It is beyond cheesy. It is the kiss goodnight I didn’t know I needed. It is the thing that makes me feel 3-dimensional, seen.

***

Andrew, a dear friend, likes to ask a second how are you, cutting past the automatic okay often tossed at the first. Another friend, Al, will call without pre-arranging a time. He will see me so vividly as we chat that I am often wiping away tears, unbeknownst to Al who continues our catch up. The entire call with Al is a second how are you. Ginny, who is a therapist and is old enough to be my mother, asks the most pointed, though unassuming questions that immediately disarm me, and I find myself sharing things I have told few others.

This is the world I want for my daughters. As more species go extinct, and more ice melts into the rising seas, I want them to reach for each other — to know people who wish to build with them, to connect across geographies and decades with no ulterior motive beyond asking questions and actually wanting to hear honest answers.

We are not the accomplishments of our offspring. We are not the institutions that have or haven’t recognized us. We are the people with whom we laugh and cry and breathe and die. Mine live in Seattle, and Salt Lake City, and Boulder, and DC, and Providence. In Little Rock, and Baltimore, and Tokyo, and Johannesburg. In New York City, and Port Washington, and Cambridge. In LA and Oakland and San Francisco too. They are in my bones. Interactions with them remind me of who I have been and push me towards who I ache to be. They ask the questions that crack me open and place my shards on their palms, where they glisten.

 

Image by Kenrick Mills on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Anri Wheeler
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