Dispatches From A Pandemic: The Old Normal

It begins with a question: “How are you?”

The question that makes me cringe as much as the phrase “new normal.

It’s the third time I’ve been asked how I am today, between phone calls and hastily-yelled conversations across the post office parking lot.

Each time, I answer: “Great!” And, for the first time in months, I actually mean it.

I’ve just returned from paddling the kayak around three neighboring islands. Sitting on the deck of my 200-year-old childhood farmhouse, John Cole’s “In Maine” essay collection in my lap, iced tea by my side. Across the street, high tide slowly fills the cove.

Thinking: It’s all so damn normal here.

Here, on this small Maine island with its one case of Covid. Here, with the three-room schoolhouse I attended for six years. Here, where even fifty years later, nothing much has changed. Here, you don’t have to return to normalcy, because normal never really left.

Later, as I head out for groceries, I’m stuck in the typical string of cars waiting as the old swing drawbridge that connects island to mainland opens to let a sailboat through. This occurs every summer on the half hour. This summer is no different.

During the ride into town, I pass kids fishing, sunlight glinting off their aluminum dinghy. Two shirtless guys building a deck, on a smoke break. The thump of tennis balls on the public courts. The Yacht Club regatta drifting by, with their puffy cotton ball sails. In town, tourists have tentatively returned, reverently masked, strolling along the wharf. The air thick with onion rings and fried clams.

I nibble a few fresh-picked strawberries from the farm stand on the way home, their sweetness evoking teary memories of the shortbread my mother once baked before dementia stole her ability to follow a recipe.

I am here; I am home, overwhelmed with gratitude for this pinprick of normalcy in an otherwise crazy universe. Grateful for the rhythms of island life. A doe and two fawns at dawn under the apple trees in my backyard. The seal chasing pogies two feet from my kayak. Time measured by the flow of the tide and passing of the seasons, not by levels of antibacterial soap and rolls of toilet paper.

Life is not easy on an island, self-isolated by design. But Mainers are a resilient folk, their lives spent coping with extreme everything: weather, job shortages, poverty, aging. Through centuries and generations, they have learned to adapt to conditions. To coexist rather than to control.

The pandemic may be the most extreme challenge any of us will ever endure. And each day we’re faced with a choice: either evolve or disappear.