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The normality conundrum
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I'm reading
The normality conundrum
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I'm reading
The normality conundrum
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2 December 2020

The normality conundrum

What is normal, anyway? What was it prior to 2020? Did it ever really exist? And if it did, do we still want it to?

Written by Naomi Crellin

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Discussed in this Story

A friend of mine has an Alain de Botton quote stuck on their fridge that says, “The only people we can think of as normal are those we don’t yet know very well.”

Growing up the precocious first-born child of professional musicians, with a unique dress sense (the more scrunchies, the better), an absence of self-consciousness about breaking into song wherever I felt moved (large foyer spaces and supermarkets were particular favourites), and a general desire to stand out, I was never viewed as “normal” by my peers.

This didn’t really matter as most kids are weird, but when tweenhood reared its ugly head everything changed. Sixth and seventh grade royally sucked. I was suddenly a social pariah, shunned for the very things for which I had previously been admired, cast aside to the “losers” group – a bunch of poor suckers deemed unworthy of basic respect due to our unique varieties of nerdiness. And yet, I didn’t fit in here either. I was no brainiac, no rebel, no Christian fundamentalist. So, in books and music I sought my solitary refuge, and dreamed of the day I would find my tribe.

The following year I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the elite stream of a music specialist high school, where 25 other social outcasts emerged from primary school, similarly wary, blinking in the harsh light of puberty, each of us equally awkward and fearful of peer-induced ridicule. We quickly formed a tight bond, forged in the fire of previous social ostracism. In our own little bubble, we felt “normal,” some of us for the first time.

However, as a fairly conspicuous minority group within a larger public school, we were still considered weirdos by the general student body, and we attracted our fair share of unwanted attention. One delicate young pianist who carried a briefcase instead of a school bag was picked on mercilessly – to the extent that he carried a leatherbound “incident book” in the breast pocket of his crisply-ironed school shirt to record the details of each individual harassment and report them weekly to the school principal. (He is now a lawyer, musical theatre performer and bodybuilder with the most impressive abs I have ever seen.)

Fast forward to our 21-year high school reunion. A group of nearly-40-year-olds meet in the pub down the road from the school (the one that had no qualms about selling cigarettes to underage students in uniform at the bottle-o – it feels odd to be here legally). Upon arrival, slightly fashionably late, I brace myself and take a deep breath as I brave the throng, heading straight to the bar for some much-needed social lubricant. The woman next to me ordering Prosecco I vaguely recognise through her thick mask of foundation as a cool kid alumnus. We smile awkwardly and embark upon small talk, my anxious inner teen fearing ridicule, however it quickly becomes apparent to me that she has grown up to be dull and completely unthreatening. I inwardly chastise myself for judging her so harshly, excuse myself and wander through the crowd, noting beer bellies and receding hairlines, boob jobs and crows’ feet. I am periodically drawn into surface-level conversations with people I haven’t seen for the past two decades, some of whom I don’t even recognise, and many of whom I’m pretty damn sure I’ve NEVER spoken to.

As the night wears on, we find ourselves congregating back towards old social alliances, seeking the security of those who were, for a time at least, like us. The laughter grows louder, the body language loosens. I notice that one major difference between tonight’s atmosphere and our mid-90s social zeitgeist is the degree of blatancy of judgement. We are still sizing up our peers, still forming thinly-supported opinions based on superficial subjective analysis, but we have largely learned to keep our snide remarks to ourselves, and some of us to even counter them with empathy. After 20 long years, we are finally beginning to accept and be accepted as we are.

Walking home, reflecting on the evening, I have an epiphany: the cool group that I used to feel so desperate to join or at least be approved of when I was young have mainly turned out to be batshit boring adults. All of that conformity they so stridently practiced at that pivotal developmental stage may have worked entirely too well, and it seems to have come at the expense of cultivating interesting personalities.

By contrast, the nerds, outcasts and music nuts were engaging, open-minded, empathetic and interested. Not just interesting, interested. To be pubescently cool requires a commitment to nonchalance, to disengagement, to neutrality. The pinnacle of teen socialising is the battle of who could care less, as Ben Folds so eloquently puts it. And oh, how I wish I could zip back in time and tell my awkward young self this key secret to life: that normal is a steep and slippery slope into boring. That the ability to fit in often comes at the expense of adventure, of exploration. One of my all-time favourite quotes (attributed to more than one author) – “Go out on a limb: that’s where the fruit is” – illustrates this perfectly.

Nerds are just humans who have found their passion early and aren’t willing to jettison it in favour of superficial social acceptance. I smile to myself as I saunter down the well-beaten path to my childhood home and do a jiggly skip, boobs bobbing precariously in their tight bra chosen to mask the fact that my amazing body has recently breastfed two babies.

Now, three years further on, the world is unrecognisable. The term “normal” takes on yet another tone. As 2020 unfolds, the terms “back to normal,” “new normal” and “COVID normal” have become part of the daily vernacular. Around April, the phrase, “I can’t wait for everything to go back to normal” was an oft-heard lament. As the months wore on, and it became clear that we weren’t going “back” anywhere, the phrase “the new normal” became the refrain. I, like many, railed against this term, refusing to accept that beautiful, essential, enriching elements of our human experience such as group singing, hugging, concerts, parties and festivals were to be permanently disallowed or altered beyond recognition (and that this would constitute any kind of normal).

“COVID normal” then came along, which left a little more promise in the hint that this may not be a permanent state of affairs. With promising trials underway, “vaccine normal” may, if we’re lucky, be the flavour of 2021. But, as we sat at home gazing at the rubble of the lives we took for granted, many of us began to appreciate the opportunity to gain perspective and reflect on what we were actually glad we’d lost. How many of us had rushed around like headless chooks, never pausing long enough to ask ourselves why we were such slaves to the busyness? How many of us were almost guiltily relieved that this global pause button had been pressed?

Hardly anyone I talk to has come through this year unscathed. And nearly everyone I talk to expresses some degree of gratitude for the silver linings to be found. Many of us are revisiting lost passions, discovering new interests or taking a good, hard look at what we no longer wish to pour our energy into – something we would not have had the time and headspace to do if the treadmill hadn’t broken down.

I myself, having been a professional musician my entire working life, am gazing out over a landscape of reduced audience capacities, unpredictable global currents, indefinitely restricted travel, an even less arts-focussed government, and a big fat recession, all combining to create an even less secure artistic environment than the already precarious one within which we used to strive.

Slumped on the bench, bewildered and disheartened, searching for a new direction in which to channel my energy, a friend asked me this simple question: “What are you drawn to?” My answer was long and rambling, but essentially boiled down to this: the facilitation of human connection, something I’ve so far only professionally pursued through the medium of music. I sat with this revelation for many weeks, waiting for a path to become clear. And, incrementally, it did. I have begun volunteering at a charity, which I adore and where I feel so useful. I have enrolled in a counselling degree for next year, about which I’m extremely excited and impatient to begin. I don’t know how these new skills will manifest, but I do know they’re vital, and if I’m patient, the way forward will continue to reveal itself, little by little.

Music is and forever will be an essential thread in the weave of our societal fabric, a comfort, a mood revitaliser, a storytelling tool, a cultural lifeline, an exploration of our deepest feelings. It unites us and enriches us, and it will continue to feature prominently in my life. But this year, facing the certainty of uncertainty, I find myself increasingly drawn towards the frontline of the battalion in daily combat with How Hard It Is Being Human. For, if there were ever one thing we could classify as universal – even “normal” – this may well be it.

Naomi Crellin

Naomi Crellin is Musical Director and alto of Australia’s ARIA award-winning vocal group The Idea of North

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