When Nothing Was Normal

As these COVID days wear on I notice a feeling of familiarity with the solitude. It reminds me of daily life growing up without the internet, especially in the summer after the school year ended. Poor kids didn’t go to summer camp or band camp or whatever camp so there were long stretches of weeks at home. Poor families didn’t take travel vacations. We stayed home all summer. With one parent gone and one parent working, the weeks without scheduled events were an exercise in occupying our time mostly on our own.

When we lived in the ‘burbs we might have a friend or two in the neighborhood but the luxury of being left home along all day without supervision came at a price. There was a strict rule that no one was allowed into the home during the day while the parent was away. We were forbidden from going to anyone else’s home as well, until the parent came home and granted permission. By the time the parent came home the day was mostly over, so the overall effect was day after day in our own home or yard alone. No internet, no cable TV, Netflix wasn’t invented yet, nowhere to go; nothing to do but entertain ourselves.

These days children are never left alone for three breaths at a time, much less three months, but back then it was normal. In a single parent home the oldest child was in charge while the parent worked, responsible for the care and supervision of the other children. This was me; also enforcer of the rules. Since the four of us were perpetually bickering over something and/or nursing a temporary grudge or petty resentment, at least one of us would tattle if any one of us broke the No Friends Over rule. Also the Don’t Leave The Yard rule. Punishment was severe back then; also normal for the time. We only risked it if there was an airtight bribe in place.

Then there were the particularly lean years when the parent worked more than one job and those hours alone stretched from day into evening. It was also normal back then for kids to go trick-or-treating alone (or with friends). In those days one collected candy only in his or her own neighborhood. No one got into cars to be driven into other neighborhoods. You stayed on your own turf, on foot, with a buddy or a sibling, and came home at the appointed time. One particularly golden memory was the year Halloween fell on a week night and I made a judgment call against the rules and let my siblings go trick-or-treating.

It was the one and only time they ever got to go. The parent was fundamentally religious and didn’t let us observe any Halloween rituals, not even at school. But that year he worked late. Homemade costumes were also normal back then. No one wasted spent a shit-ton of money on anything more than a plastic mask, and those never survived the night anyway. So I put my three siblings in three cobbled-together homemade costumes of ghost, hobo, and football player, and sent them out with a plastic bucket, a pillow case, and a duffle bag to collect their candy.

I had to stay home in case Dad called. The rules: Stay together. Don’t leave the neighborhood. Come home by 6:15 so you can change and clean up before Dad gets home. All candy must be hidden immediately and stay hidden. We can never speak of this unless we are alone. I will do all of your chores while you’re gone if you bring me some candy too. And it worked. And it was glorious. And they made a massive haul. And they had so much fun they blew in at 6:15 with nary a complaint when I put the hammer down to get everything and everyone back to normal before Dad’s return.

To this day my siblings still recall this as the coolest Big Sister move I ever made. They all have children of their own who hear the story every Halloween. Not only because we got away with it but because it is the only Halloween memory we have other than sitting grimly in the darkened living room listening to the entire world have Halloween outside while we watched TV with the sound low and ignored the knocks at the door. But of course, not every day was Halloween, so how did we entertain ourselves on regular days before video games (only rich kids had those) and the internet (no one had that)?

I would read a lot. A lot. When I ran out of books I read them all again. And again. Outdated magazines. Encyclopedias. And I wrote some things, but this was harder because there was no privacy and no place to hide things if you didn’t want it to be read by people who considered every thought inside your head a sin. My sisters crafted things for play. My brother took things apart to see how they worked and then tried to put them back together. Ideas didn’t come from Pinterest back then and supplies consisted of whatever was already in the home.

COVID is bringing back these memories because I am loathe to order things to do and thereby blow all the money I’m saving. The irony. There is money now to have all the things and now I don’t want them. COVID is also bringing back these memories because quasi-isolation creates a bubble of familiarity with doing nothing. Back in the day it was normal to just sit and think. No, really. People did this. Kids did this. You’d just think. Daydream. Plan your future. Analyze. Recall. Create fiction and fantasy in your mind, with just your mind. This was a thing. I never see anyone do this anymore. Who sits and thinks?

My coworkers tell me they take their cell phones and tablets to the bathroom with them because sitting on the toilet with nothing to do is boring. For that matter, most people I know can’t even watch TV without another device in their hands. I see people staring at their cell phones while waiting for the microwave to heat their food. They can’t be present with their own thoughts for even that amount of time. And no one eats the food without also doing something else, especially alone. I see no one just eating food. Ever. Just looking around. I never see kids looking out of car windows anymore; looking at the world and thinking about it. Remember? This was normal once upon a time.

COVID has brought back to me the long-lost feeling of not doing anything, and this was not considered a waste of time. Thinking without external input. Being at rest without input. Everything down. Everything off. Sitting. Just thinking. Looking at whatever happens to already be here. I remember this feeling. I did this as a teenager. And then curiously, never again. Until COVID. Now I’m catching myself looking out the window and daydreaming again. I don’t think it’s a reach to call it a silver lining. This was also once a thing — finding silver linings within hardships.

Surely someone somewhere is conducting a long-term study of the correlation between the lost practice of free thinking and the explosion of mental health crises. Could brains which are never allowed to simply wander be developing differently, or conversely, failing to develop in certain ways? Our nervous systems? Our immune responses? It’s just a thought (pun intended). I am under-qualified but someone who remembers thinking versus perpetual reacting is already studying this, right? Yes? Please? Now that I’ve come back to it, this feels important.

Now that I’ve had some contrast and comparison, I think my brain was starving for some nothing. My nervous systems. My immune responses. Surely I’m not the only one. I keep hearing people call these COVID days the new normal but some of this is not new, y’all. Those of us who grew up without 24/7 electronic something are being triggered. In a good way. Our classic skills are coming back and kicking in. You’ve heard of them in fables, yes? Serenity. Contentment. Original thought. Free time. The art of a meandering conversation. A rambling blog post.

This feels good. Like pumpkin pie good. Like Marie Kondo-ing your mind. I had forgotten how good. I wish nothing could go viral and all the cool kids were doing it. A nothing movement. A nothing trend. Dolce far niente, if you will. Maybe it would have been nice to get back to nothing without a pandemic to provoke it, but hell, maybe nothing less than a pandemic was going to work. Look how quickly and willfully and agreeably we’ve adjusted. Back to nothing.

— Mercy

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