That wistful question recently (and briefly) trended on twitter, and it got me thinking.....and I honestly couldn't remember.
(Stipulating that "before" is meaningless because the pandemic has always been here.)
I scrolled back to Instagram posts from late February looking for shots that weren't taken under a COVID pall—and found photos from a 20-mile trail run with friends. The caption captured the day:
"Trail time is great for solving all the world’s problems. Also for frivolous fun, cultural curiosities, and a lot of alliteration."
That day was blithely normal and oblivious to the chaos at the gates. Two weeks later I was on a plane to San Diego, fetching our daughter home from college.
It will take historians years to sort out what happened next, but the most generous executive summary would read something like, "A highly transmissible virus was loosed in the world, exposing weakness in social structures that fueled explosive spread of the disease. In one country, sadistic indifference by the federal government made the pandemic far worse than it should have been, killing hundreds of thousands who needn't have died. A significant percentage of the population followed the government's example, accelerating the spread of the disease and eroding civic norms required for a successful society to survive."
2020 has broken our hearts in obvious and subtle ways. We will never recover from the massive death toll, no matter how much the current administration would like us to ignore it. We've lost whatever spurious claim we had to 'the greatest country in the world," and no genuflecting to a flag can change that.
We've discovered we can't trust many of our neighbors to do the right thing, or the smart thing, or even the decent thing. They will put themselves—and therefore the rest of us—in danger without batting an eye.
We've learned some of them are so broken they will literally sabotage our supply of vaccines.
How do we recover from that, emotionally and pragmatically?
When every interaction is fraught with real, empirical risk, how do we allow new people into our circle? Openly and happily, without suspicion?
My impulse is to say, "We don't." And that's coming from someone who used to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Like the kid in The Polar Express, I *wanted* to believe. I wanted to hear that fucking bell ring. And it did, for a long time.
We can forgive, maybe. But we can't forget.
In a few months, possibly longer, many of us will be vaccinated. In the spirit of a new year, a more pleasant question: "What's the next normal thing you'll do after the pandemic?"
I want to cook for people. Lots of people. I want to stand in a warm kitchen, talking above the music, laughing with people I love. I want to fill up a tub with ice and beer. I want to bust out the "good wine" we've saved for a long-deferred special occasion.
I want to see people I haven't seen IRL in forever. I want to greet them at the door with long, tearful hugs and laugh about that, too.
I want to turn on the outdoor party lights as the sun goes down, and when everyone's been fed I want to sip a beer in a quiet corner and watch everyone get in-person re-acquainted. I want to memorize the smiles and the brilliant little jokes and the sad stories.
And as they drift off into the evening, I want to tell them all we'll see them in a week or two, and we'll do the whole thing all over again.
Just because we can.
Nothing will change what we learned about ourselves and each other in 2020. For good and ill, it happened, and there's no going back.
All we can do is move forward. And find ways to be new-normal again.