Back to normal

This summer, a lot has changed in my life. We moved from the apartment and neighborhood where we had lived for seven years, which felt more like home to me even than my hometown did when I was a child. I am in the midst of a job transition as a result of North Central College’s acquisition of Shimer College, and I am also completing a manuscript that marks something of an endpoint of the “devil project” that has been guiding my research since my dissertation. I have taken the opportunity to change a lot of other, more trivial things — switching banks, opting for a Mac for my work computer after years as a hardened PC user, even changing my hairstyle — and decided to spend the last few weeks of summer vacation learning biblical Hebrew, a long-delayed goal that felt right precisely because it is something of a non-sequitur.

Yet in my unguarded moments, I realize that I still expect things to go “back to normal.” When I shared this with The Girlfriend and tried to articulate what that “normal” was, it turned out to be a relatively short window — perhaps my second or third year at Shimer, when the dog was still with us and in good health, before The Girlfriend went to grad school and changed careers. Things felt more open-ended then, like it could stay that way forever. I knew Shimer was fragile, but had no way of anticipating the obstacles we would face, nor of course any glimmer of the possibility that we would join a larger institution. I was not involved in any major projects other than translation and the occasional invited article or talk.

The fact that this situation was actually very unusual and short-lived is not lost on me. If I were to “average out” my post-grad school life, what is “normal” is uncertainty and upheaval. It is more common for us to be anticipating a change in our living situation — our summer in San Francisco or the six months splitting our time between Chicago and Minneapolis, and now our move to a new neighborhood — than to feel definitively settled. It is more common for me to be seeking out career opportunities than to feel settled in my job. It is more common for me to be working toward completing long-term projects (the Awkwardness trilogy, then the devil project) than to be happily marking time with translation work only.

What “normal” must mean to me is that nothing much is happening. The “norm” is a kind of stasis in the sense of calm and stillness. The fact that it does not often occur shows that it is also stasis in the Greek (Nicole-Lorauxian) sense of tension that can break out at any moment into upheaval. The “normal” situation could not last because Shimer wasn’t really stable enough for me to settle in for life, because The Girlfriend wasn’t content with the dead-end job she had wound up in (nor would I have been attracted to her if she was the kind of person who could be), because I was not finally content to spend my career as a servant to another thinker (even a great one) nor to stick to a single line of research.

When I think of what I regard as the “normal” state when I was growing up, I always focus in on sixth and seventh grade. That was also a time of stasis, when I spent most of my time working through every science fiction or fantasy series in the library or playing video games. It was also something of a classical era for my life strategy of avoiding conflict by promptly doing chores. Sometimes I remember it as one of the happiest times of my life, the calm before the storm — because in high school, there was a gradual ramping up of the demands on my time and of conflict with my family, which culminated in something like a nervous breakdown in my senior year.

In reality, though, it was the saddest time of my life, because I had no friends. During elementary school, I felt like part of the gang, but when we transitioned to middle school, they all abandoned me completely, refused to associate with me in any way. My sin was that I was basically the only person from my elementary school who got into the honors classes. As it turns out, when they were testing to see who should go into the gifted program, I was a borderline case, and my mom chose to keep me on the normal track — because, as she later told me, the counselor told me that it might be the case that I wasn’t really “gifted,” but just worked hard. I always remember her telling me that at the time, but I’m not sure that actually makes sense, because I certainly don’t remember feeling like I was passed over for anything in elementary school. I assumed I was like everyone else, and so did they — but when that turned out not to be the case, they were resentful, and in any case I wound up not seeing a lot of them given that we were on different tracks.

So I entered middle school alone, among students who had known each other for years. I sat alone at lunch. For a brief period, I was even bullied. Apparently my solution — to the extent that I can decipher the implicit reasoning of my 11-year-old self — was to “lean in.” If I’m to be alone, I should want to be alone. If I’m an anti-social freak for being smart and interested in school, I should own it and escape into fantasy worlds. If answering questions about school makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed, I should figure out a way to keep my family off my back. And this is simultaneously my normative and “happiest” childhood state — because the worst had already happened, because I could construct a bubble for myself that wouldn’t require the risk of rejection again.

I did ultimately manage to break out of the bubble, and to break out from the inside, as it were. Not content to simply consume fantasy worlds, I started drawing comic books in the really shockingly long periods of downtime during class — and people started asking to see them and passing them around. Gradually, I was welcomed into friend groups, and I even managed to get a first girlfriend (and even a first kiss!) by the end of eighth grade. That’s not what I feel nostalgia for, though. What I miss, what I wish I could somehow get back, like pain from an old wound, is that illusion of sterile self-sufficiency, of shutting out the world to plow through whole piles of books, of folding the laundry while watching Ducktales, like clockwork, so that everyone will leave me alone, so that I won’t have to worry that they’ll abandon me because I have preemptively abandoned them.

I have grown up, of course, but there is probably more than a faint echo of that sad childhood “normal” in my current concept of “normal” — which is why I am glad that things will probably never return fully to normal.

6 thoughts on “Back to normal

  1. Funny how we normalize events that others consider horrific. I only began to understand the trauma of 23 schools in twelve years when I was in my forties

  2. And how did that “learning Hebrew” in a few weeks work out for you? My sister-in-law who does translation in a west African language claims that “learning Hebrew” is a decades-long project.

  3. I only wanted to get through the grammar textbook in a few weeks, which was also unrealistic. In practice, I got 1/3 of the way through it, and I think I’m on a pace where I can reasonably keep working on it during the term and hopefully be done with grammar exercises by the New Year. And then there’s just the thousands of hours of work stumbling through texts and I’m done!

  4. What a nice set of reflections!

    I can relate to the sense of normal being one of withdrawal. For me it was a couple of years practicing scales on an unplugged electric guitar while watching bad television after everyone’s gone to bed (large quantities of Mountain Dew were involved too).

    Strangely, we moved so much when I was a kid that for most of my adulthood my sense of normal also involved packing up and starting over every two to five years in a new part of the country or world. Louisiana is the first place I’ve lived in for more than six years consecutively and after seventeen years I very much doubt that it will ever feel like home (this is probably as much Louisiana’s fault as it is mine).

    I take comfort in Heidegger’s weird old adage that philosophy is really homesickness, the urge to be at home everywhere.

    Anyhow, I hope and trust that you guys will thrive in your new circumstances.

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