Monday, October 26, 2020
Arts + Culture Examined Life: Replace existing normal

Examined Life: Replace existing normal

In the wake of COVID-19, how can we make space for the fluctuating emotions that come with our suddenly transformed lives?


So, here we are.

I finally did my laundry. It had piled up from a week of vacation, followed by a week of social distancing, followed by two weeks of shelter-in-place. It felt normal, doing my laundry. The detergent and quarters, the wash and spin, folding my dry towels and sheets. It felt normal, that is, until the bathing suits that I hung up to dry. I’d worn them in Hawaii. But now … now, I’ll have no use for these bathing suits, for so many things, for quite some time.

There is a prompt I used to often see on an old PC when something went haywire with Microsoft Word. It would pop up in the center of the page and say, “Replace existing normal?” Lacking the tech savvy needed to understand the true meaning of the prompt, I’d often laugh to myself and exclaim aloud, “Yes, please!” Who doesn’t want to replace their existing normal at one point or another? And then, of course, I’d click “No,” terrified of losing the contents of my hard drive. Now, in this current moment, it’s the same concept, really—but it’s no longer a question. The existing normal has been replaced. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

In the new normal, there are the bigger things that some of us have lost: Work. Income. Physical connection with loved ones, in-person connection with communities. In some cases, our health. In some cases, the lives of friends or family members. There are the smaller things that some of us have lost: The freedom to gather. Visits to our favorite restaurant or wine bar. Toilet paper stocked in the toilet paper aisle. Food shopping without fear. And though most of us who are housed feel gratitude for simply having a place in which to take shelter, there’s no denying that, as a city, as a society, no matter how much baking we do or dog-walking or Zoom-calling, things are, in a most surreal way, undefinably different. 

The first week of the new normal, the primary feeling I experienced was a tight clenching in my chest, like a hand reaching through my body, trying to pull the recent past back through myself, so I could step backwards into it. No matter the apparent practical reality that appeared in front of me—employers shutting down, loved ones forgoing pre-planned visits to California, doors shuttering down the whole Divisadero corridor where I live, and Depression Era-reminiscent queues a block-length or more in which folks were waiting for bread and rice—there was a part of me that didn’t agree with this new world. It wasn’t an ethical disagreement; my reasoning mind knew, of course, we needed to shut the city down in the face of the pandemic. It was, instead, a disagreement of the will, of expectation and routine. A disagreement of the now, of the future, of the heart.

I grieved a lot those first days, in between hours spent transferring as much of my business as I could to an online platform. I wept between pleasant (socially-distanced) strolls with a friend, and howled while fumbling through new technological tools I never wanted to learn but now feel grateful to comprehend. I sat happily with my meditation teacher in a virtual gathering, and then despaired at the thought of being sequestered 3000 miles away from my 95-year-old grandmother. I felt the deep familiarity of community seeing my students in my online offerings and my colleagues in my (now virtual) weekly writers group. And then I shuddered to hear that my hometown of New York City is being completely hijacked by this plague.

For two weeks now, I’ve been floating between the old normal and the new normal, between comfort and fear, and familiarity and grief, holding tight and letting go. At the time of our city’s shutdown, I was about to launch a new website. Many folks I know were about to open a play or a restaurant, were hoping to conceive or preparing for a medical procedure, were about to get married or divorced. If this situation brings about any realization inherent in our lives, we can notice that we are all, always, on the verge of something. And now, overnight, we’re all on the verge of something else.

Humans are engineered, potent viruses aside, to experience emotional flux. In Buddhist philosophy, there are “three marks of existence.” They state that human beings (our personalities, ages, opinions) are constantly changing; external conditions (weather, safety, environment) are impermanent; and suffering  results when we deny the truth of the first two. And so all of us, even in the best of times, alternate—sometimes swaying like ocean flora, and other times rebounding like ping pong balls—between the two extremes of understanding and misunderstanding, of holding tightly to our lives as they are and accepting the change that inevitably comes.

All of us, even those with strong mindfulness practices, are being pulled hither and thither, from resistance to acceptance and then back again. The question isn’t about how we can practice some kind of unrealistic non-attachment in a world that’s on fire. The question is, more simply: How can we ride the waves?

The waves between the old normal and the new normal are large and jostling. They take us in a matter of seconds from the empty shelves in the grocery store to a gratitude for trees, from the overfilled ICUs in the hospital to a heartfelt connection with a friend that once again makes us feel whole.

There is a part of us that is confused by the waves, and wants us to feel just one thing. But that’s not what the ocean wants. Rather, we’re going to grieve and accept and delight in a rotating fashion. We’re going to try to reach back into the past, and then land in the present, and then despair or fantasize about the future, and do it all over again. We’re going to be there, and then here, until here becomes there. And the point is that this is okay—and that knowing this is okay is actually the practice.

So, here we are. 

Karen Macklin
Karen Macklin is a writer, life coach, and teacher of yoga and mindfulness in San Francisco. See more about her at

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