I've always been fascinated by the history of words; from the time I was a kid, I always wondered where a word came from, how its meaning changed over the years, and when it acquired its current meaning. Take, for example, the word "normal." These days, it generally means something that is "usual, typical, or expected." But as any student of history can tell you, what was considered normal in times past might not be considered normal today.
For example, a century ago, health books said it was not normal for girls to participate in sports. Parents were advised that sports were normal for boys, but if girls were allowed to play, they would acquire masculine traits. Meanwhile, it was considered normal for kids as young as twelve to work full-time in factories, even around dangerous machinery. And it was normal for upper-class women to wear long skirts and corsets (having a slender waist was the goal), while upper-class men were expected to wear a frock coat, a vest, and a shirt with a stiff collar.
But while it's interesting to look back on how society's idea of "normal" has changed since the 1910s, let's consider what has changed since just last year. In February 2020, few of us were thinking much about COVID-19. In my typical week, "normal" meant sitting in traffic as I drove to my teaching job at Lesley University (about twenty-five minutes from where I live). It meant hanging with students who wanted to talk, taking them out for ice cream (or cookies), attending faculty meetings, and sometimes going over to a nearby library to do some research for an article I was working on (I have always done a lot of free-lance writing).
A year ago, I never thought anyone except my husband would see my messy home office, and that was okay: as a media historian, I have lots of reference materials, old magazines and books and other rare memorabilia; and while I know where most things are, I'm sure my filing system would look a bit chaotic to a stranger. But now, my home office is where I teach my classes. I've organized it as best I can (even installed a Baby Yoda to be in the shot when I Zoom or Skype), but I am sure Room Rater would give me a 2 or 3, rather than a 10. Still, it's normal for me these days to teach online and try my best to educate (and entertain) students, many of whom I've never met in person.
I'm still not sure how to define "normal" in February 2021, but some people seem to have found a way. For example, whether you like our new president or not, he seems kind of normal to me--and I mean that in an old-school way: he doesn't call people names or Tweet angry messages day and night; he goes to church once a week, he likes bagels, he likes ice cream, he enjoys playing with his dogs or spending time with his wife. In other words, he has a predictable and low-key routine-- even if he's now doing it all from the White House rather than from his home in Delaware.
I too have tried to create a predictable and normal routine, but things still feel very much out of place. I miss giving people hugs. I miss visiting old friends and taking them out to lunch. I miss going to a movie or seeing a play. I'm glad I can Zoom or Skype with people (I gave a talk several weeks ago to students and professors in Karachi, Pakistan, which was a lot of fun), and I'm glad I can reach out to friends and colleagues on social media. I'm encouraged that slowly, people are getting the COVID vaccine. But somehow none of this feels "normal," even after almost a year. You'd think I'd be accustomed to it by now. After all, I'm often told this is the "new normal." Of course, I'm happy to be alive to see it. I know things change, and I know I can adapt to those changes. But frankly, I still miss the old normal. And I don't think I'm alone in that.