I love the massive canvas hanging outside the Cape Ann Museum that went up at the beginning of the pandemic. It is a dramatic painting of schooners in a storm with the words: “Storms Rage, Gloucester Endures.” Indeed when that banner was raised, I felt like I was on a ship heading into a storm. Now, I no longer have a sense of what’s beyond the storm. I can’t quite picture calm seas and smooth sailing. Now, when I watch a movie I feel wistful at completely mundane moments; two people who meet and embrace or a group of strangers entering an elevator. These are utterly common moments up until nine months ago, and yet it is as if I am watching someone send a telegram or light a cigarette in an airplane; something long past that will never return. I’ve lost a feeling for getting back to normal, and so this midweek I am musing about what is “normal?”
I am confident that in a year or four we will be calling something “normal.” I have no idea what that will be. The word normal actually means right angle and it comes from the old Latin word norma, meaning a carpenter’s square. That normal 900-degree or “right angle” is ubiquitous in our constructed landscapes. Sitting here at my round kitchen table, I can see dozens of right angles: all the walls, windows, doors and appliances. But is the normal natural? Does the right angle ever manifest with any regularity in nature? Some crystals like salt take a squarish form, but I was looking for something more precise. Perhaps chemical bonds? I asked my father-in-law, a chemist. After sharing information I could barely understand he made it simple: right angled chemical bonds are very rare.
I am comforted that normal is not natural. Normal is not to be discovered but determined. It comes from innumerable human decisions and accommodations. Right angles help us create stable structures and keep things in orderly patterns. We human beings need stability and structure particularly now as so much feels broken and disrupted.
As in the shift of how I am experiencing what is “normal,” my sense of the disruption over the last few years has also shifted. At first, it felt like solid structures crumbling: our shared values as a nation, our shared sense of truth, our national identity as a beacon of hope and justice, our slow but steady progress toward greater racial justice and equality, our planetary systems as reliable and eternal, to name a few. Now I understand that what fell apart was not the solid structures. They were not so solid. What fell apart was flawed or false stories that I (and we) told about those supposedly solid structures.
There’s so much loss and disruption and damage from this pandemic and so many institutions and structures we need to trust that are not functioning properly. When the crisis begins to wane, when we can hug our friends and family and ride elevators with strangers, we will need to rebuild. We will need to come together with our carpenter’s squares for the sacred work of building a fairer, safer and more compassionate new normal.
Steven Lewis is the rabbi of Temple Ahavat Achim on Middle Street in downtown Gloucester. The Midweek Musings column rotates among Cape Ann clergy.