Living Madly: The Way We Were

Living Madly: The Way We Were

By Emilie-Noelle Provost

One evening recently, my husband, Rob, and I were sitting in our living room listening to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert on the radio. When it was over the announcer returned and made a comment about how nice it was that the fall concert season was ramping up again. She said she was glad that things were finally returning to normal after the chaos wrought by COVID-19 over the last two-plus years.

This got me thinking: What does “normal” mean anymore? Venues around the country might be booking concerts again, but as far as I can tell, many people’s lives only vaguely resemble their pre-March 2020 counterparts, my own included.

Attached by a bee-shaped brass magnet, a receipt from the Pemi Public House, a restaurant in North Woodstock, New Hampshire, hangs on my refrigerator door. It’s getting a bit faded now but you can still read the date on it: March 15, 2020. Rob and I ate there that day with a couple of our close friends.

We had just learned that the Loon Mountain Ski Resort in nearby Lincoln had abruptly closed for the season due to COVID-19. Cleaning products, soap, and toilet paper had already become scarce. But inside that pub, life was still normal. People drank beer and ate burgers. They laughed and made jokes. Friends hugged one another.

No one who was at the Pemi that afternoon could have imagined how rapidly and drastically the world was about to change, or that their lives would soon be unrecognizable, even, and especially, to themselves.

Later that same day, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all public and private schools in the state to close. Eating and drinking inside restaurants and bars was banned until further notice. Gatherings of more than twenty-five people became illegal.

I’m still not sure what made me keep that receipt. But I think it was because somehow I knew that day was different. It was the demarcation point marking the end of life as we knew it, and the dawn of the brave new world in which we all now live.

One of the problems I have when I try to get my mind around what “normal” means these days is that I am no longer normal. That is to say, I am not the same person I was on March 15, 2020 when I was sitting in the Pemi Public House eating a baked potato.

Since that day, my mother and three of my close friends have died. My extended family is a faded ghost of its former self. The disappointment and heartbreak that have sometimes seemed to lurk around every corner have often worn me down.

The world is still in such turmoil. But the light, when it shines, is also much brighter.

I find peace and joy in simple things I rarely used to think about: Late on a Saturday afternoon this past June, Rob and I sat by a rocky mountain river and watched a hummingbird catch tiny flies, the colorful little bird always returning to the same branch to rest. We didn’t talk to one another. The only sound was the rushing water.

Being unable to travel for so long has made me love and appreciate New England’s diverse landscapes and natural beauty far more, and my sense of belonging here has become absolute.

I’ve become acutely aware of time passing. I no longer tell myself that I’ll do this or that thing later, or next year. I’m less judgmental, and fiercely protective of my free time. I say “no” more often. I try harder to take care of myself, and to be a good person.

This spring, we painted the exterior of our house. From the time we bought the house ten years ago, it had been a dark blue-gray. I never liked it. The gloomy color always seemed to trap and absorb light like a storm cloud.

The new color is called Revere Pewter. It’s hard to picture from the name, but it’s a vivid off-white with a touch of shine to it. It reflects the sunlight and makes the yard, and even the inside of the house, glow. The change was so drastic that it was hard to get used to at first.

I asked Rob if he thought I had made a mistake by choosing the color. “No,” he said. “I don’t think I realized how depressing the old color was, but I’m glad it’s gone. It feels like a new beginning.”

5 Responses to Living Madly: The Way We Were

  1. David Daniel says:

    Good essay. That restaurant receipt on the Fridge is an apt synecdoche for the Covid pandemic.

    While other events–the Pearl Harbor attack, the JFK assassination, 9/11–snap time/history in two as neatly as a saltine cracker, the pandemic doesn’t present as clear a point of fracture. It’s a moving target (mid-March 2020 is about right), vaguer in its implications–but its impact is more profound because it’s global. Now we’re in the place of finding personal and societal means of dealing with its ongoingness.

  2. Paul Marion says:

    I’ll remember that receipt, a relic of pre-plague days. And in the comment, snapping time/history as neatly as a saltine cracker.

  3. Steve O'Connor says:

    As the old Italian used to say, “You talk true.” My retirement party at Navigation Brewery was Friday the 13th, 2020. Covid was a dark cloud on the horizon. The school shut down that day, but I often shared your feeling afterward. That party was the last hurrah for a long time; all of us singing and clowning, mask-less and relatively carefree.
    And you’re right; I don’t think we’ll ever be quite the same. You’re also right that Nature was something no one could take away, and the best tonic for the pandemic blues.

  4. Dave Iverson says:

    As the organizer of Steve’s party, I remember being stunned by how low a turnout there was for celebrating the retirement of such a charismatic, well liked colleague. It really underscored just how scared people were becoming. If that party had been held a month earlier, we’d have sold out of beer it would’ve been such a brouhaha.
    Lynn and I had stocked up on groceries and supplies the Saturday prior, so we felt like we were pretty well prepped. However, I realized that despite the two-cart, wallet draining order, we’d forgotten to buy corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s day the following week. We went back to Market Basket on Thursday the 12th for that one purchase, and it ended up being one of the most surreal moments of my life; the store and parking lot resembled those I’d seen in dystopian apocalypse & zombie films as victims-to-be raided for whatever they could grab.
    At that point all of my daughter’s step dance performances had been cancelled for the season, so we spent the holiday listening to the Pogues and watching The Quiet Man on televsion. None of our annual open-house visitors for boiled dinner and Guinness made it that year.

  5. Karen Stairs says:

    Your article was so on point. So many things changed in our lives.
    My life certainly changed. I even took an online course to change my career because of it. It was hard to know that I couldn’t go see my Dad (Who is in his 90’s) who lives Maine. Face Timing became our Normal. I lost my Brother and friends lost loved ones. My home became Home School Central for my Grandson. I found that I loved gardening more so than ever before. I made choices to part with things that didn’t make me Happy. The one thing I kept was Gratitude.