The New Abnormal

In my WRITING THROUGH THE PANDEMIC class last week, I talked about this weird in-between period we’re in–getting vaccinated (or not), hoping for herd immunity, but being told it probably won’t happen, watching infections rates soar around the world and variants grow as the vaccinated begin to venture out into our own communities more.

I gave my writing students the prompt, “The New Abnormal,” and I loved the responses. Here’s one that particularly captured the zeitgeist of the moment by Helen Greenspan.

The New Abnormal

It’s awkward…. this in between time. Like a first date. You take a step forward. I step back, not as ready as you are to let breath mingle and limbs embrace.

Some of us are bursting out of our homes like horses at the starting gate, as if we’ve been holding our breath for an entire year and can finally exhale. We are pent up colts now loose in the pasture, kicking up legs and racing from one thing to another.

Some of us are bewildered and cautious, almost in a dream-state, like people coming up out of a storm shelter after a tornado. As if seeing for the first time. Unsure of what we will find. Who has survived? Who have we lost? How do we rebuild? What now?

I am more like a gopher, popping my head out to look around, to see what everyone else is doing, one moment feeling brave and hopeful, and then ducking back down into my hole when I sense danger, whether in form or in thought.

Last week when I was waiting in line to swim, a woman kept moving close to me, first 3 feet, then 2 feet. Not wanting to have to be direct, I edged to the left making more space between us. But she kept coming close, oblivious to my non-verbal cues. It was like a dance for a few minutes. I move to the left; she moves to the left. I move a little more to the left. She steps closer.

Finally, I said in a polite voice, “Excuse me, I’m just trying to keep some space between us here,” expecting she would respond as most people have done with “Oh, so sorry. I’m not even paying attention. My bad.” Even just a wordless backing up would have sufficed.

But she burst out with “I’ve been vaccinated….. and I was just …being friendly……”

I nodded and said, “Of course, I understand. We all are finding our way with this…I’m a nurse and I may be more cautious….” I decided not to bring her attention to the sign right in front of us that tells us to keep 6 feet apart. I decided not to say anything about what is not known about vaccinations.

She backed up as if I had pulled a knife on her. “You’re paranoid,” she said.

“No need to be rude,” is what came out of my mouth. “No need at all.”

What I didn’t say is, “You don’t know me. You don’t know if I’ve been vaccinated. You don’t know if I’m being treated for cancer and have a compromised immune system. You don’t know If I work in ICU and am exposed to COVID every day and am trying to protect YOU. You don’t know anything.”

When I told this story to some friends last week, it turned out several of them had had similar experiences, being called paranoid for wanting to keep some distance or for wearing a mask.

This re-emergence is filled with awkwardness and unknowns.

My sister and brother-in-law visit from Connecticut. I go to see them at my brother’s house in Marin. We’ve all been vaccinated. My daughter cannot come because my sister-in-law won’t let anyone in her house who has not been vaccinated. They are all mask-less. I’m unsure. They just got off a plane. Is anyone talking about that? In my moments of feeling safe, I ask myself, do I feel safe just because they are family? They are trying to be sensitive to my indecisiveness. In brave moments, which are determined only by letting one thought be stronger than another, I let my mask down, or drop it to just below my nose, still feeling the security of it over my mouth. They follow suit. Then I remember they just got off a plane and start pulling it up over my nose again. They too, adjust their masks. It’s laughable really. It’s a dance.

Excuse me, has anyone seen safety?

We are all in the unknown. The pandemic is not “over” as so many want to believe. When over 220,000 people have died in India from COVID as of May 2nd, we cannot possibly think this is over.

It’s an awkward dance. Some are bursting out with newfound freedom post-vaccination. Some are staying enclosed in our safe homes. Some are poking our heads out and then retreating again.

We are uncertain. We are walking around with masks hanging off our faces because we don’t know what else to do. We are learning a new dance. We are stepping on each other’s toes as we learn the steps.

Perhaps we could at least try to be kind as we emerge.

–Helen Greenspan

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