Lightning bugs fill the sky like Chinese fireworks. We stay up late to watch and when, finally, we sleep, we keep our windows open to the trill of crickets and frogs. Laying on damp sheets, our shoulders ache with sunburn, the pain so familiar it would seem inevitable, but for the shame of knowing its damage. Our arms and legs, the soft parts of our bellies, are swollen from mosquitoes, chiggers, poison ivy. The day reeks of sunscreen and bug spray, a neighbor’s charcoal grills smoky with grease, two-cylinder engines fired up at dusk, and the spit of garden sprinklers.
Seasons aren’t just the weather, but everything that comes with it. One becomes accustomed to the swelter of the humid afternoons, the early morning cacophony of nesting birds. The tedious hours of tending to yards and gardens, never enough. Gnats swarm around our faces – cloud bugs, we call them, because that’s how they seem to us, a directionless, meaningless cloud – and we swat them away, uselessly. In South Carolina, they’re called “flying teeth” and in New England, “no-see-um’s” but here they’re just bugs, for the most part, and nothing but irritants of the air.
You might can tell from the way I’m writing that we don’t live in an air conditioned home, and you’d be right. They say that air conditioning changed the economy here in the South forever, because before that time, all work pretty much stopped for the summer. By work, they mean the work that wasn’t done by field hands or domestic help, but the kind of work that comes with salaries and benefits, the kind for which one isn’t expected to sweat. In fact, to appear sweaty is now considered rude, breaking an unwritten social contract. If we sweat, we’re prepared to apologetically explain it. It’s not normal. But normal is perpetually changing, shifting, reconstructing.
Not long ago I was swimming laps at the YMCA, when I saw a woman swim behind a brightly-colored ball. With each stroke, she reached for the ball, and it bobbed gaily away, just far enough that she could almost touch it again. Each stroke took her closer to the ball, and with each stroke, she pushed it away again. I wanted to ask her if she’d ever heard of Sisyphus, but she was still swimming when I left.
Normal feels like that bright ball to me, both definable and impossible to grasp. Normal is illusionary, but considered standard. Like non-sweaty bodies in the summer are normal, so too are perfect-seeming teeth, hair and skin, parameters of physical ability, constraints of weight and height. Cognitive norms also dodge and weave, ducking capture but considered attainable. In fact, following the tidy bell curve of normative IQs, they’re assumed. But understanding of this sort only follows what can be measured; it ignores all that doesn’t fit the algorithm.
What’s normal for summertime is everything I’ve gotten used to; but my experience isn’t a large enough sample size to be significant. I’m a sample size of 1: an n = 1, an insignificant sample. Sometimes my experience matches yours; other times, it doesn’t. What’s normal? I make assumptions based on my own experience; but my experience is not yours. What’s become normal, however, is to assume that it is.
What’s normal is everything I’ve gotten used to; but my experience paired with what I’ve read about climate collapse leads me to believe that I’d best prepare for learning a whole new normal. My experience paired with what I’ve seen and read about aging teaches me that my new normal might be very different from what it is now; the physical and cognitive attributes that make up the way I think of myself, normal, will change, become the new normal, and change again. What’s normal is what I cling to, again and again, as if the effort to hold it tight would keep me safe. Yet again I see the swimmer, reaching for that bright ball, every stroke pushing it further away. What’s normal falls away, gently as a spring blossom in the summer heat. What can I do but let it go?