From “Leaving Normal” a collection of essays
At the start of the summer, I did what I usually do. I moved my wintery clothing into storage, and I replenished my closet with my summer clothes. I brought up all my shoes and carefully organized them. I stepped back and admired the jackets hanging in their section.
I touched my blouses and shirts, eyed my dresses, carefully arranged-long and short, casual and fancier. The pants were on their special hangers. It was like visiting with old friends. I remembered the last time I wore my red blazer, a bunch of us from work had all gone to the Brooklyn Museum. The dress I wore last year on my birthday was just as pretty as I remembered it. The blouse Jim had bought for me- a sweet reminder of his good taste. A pair of fancy pants I rarely wore, attended a friend’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. My clothes were whispering memories to me from a time not so long ago- but a very different time.
I stood there, surveying the clothing. It had taken years to acquire all this. But all those clothes I had so lovingly hauled out, cared for and hung, all those great buys, gifts, coveted shoes I had carefully arranged, would not be worn any time soon. They were just there. My careful organizing of my clothing and shoes was an obvious attempt at keeping a ritual – doing something “normal” that I have done for years. I was not giving it up.
My closet is the work of a collector. I have loved and appreciated clothing and fashion since I was a child. Finding a dress I wanted for a better price, hunting down a pair of shoes on -line for less than what they cost in the store – and even the few times I paid full price and treated myself- was worth it, it was my sport. For me, the pursuit of a great bargain a pocketbook or piece of jewelry, was a well-practiced exercise, no different from an athlete’s love of their game. Having no athletic skill, this was my game.
I suppose my closet has become a shrine to all that is different now. I can with certainty say I grieve and miss all the places I might have worn those shoes, that one favorite blouse, or dress. My morning routine (not so long ago,) now, a lifetime ago, included a deliberate selection -the outfit I would wear to the office. Inspired by the mood du jour , or how I imagined the day ahead of me, I would lay my clothing out on my bed, and place my shoes right below on the floor. My routine began a meditation – a visioning for my day, the organizational process of my “agenda.” My sense of self was confirmed with the help of these “costumes” that helped to define me.
In the past 5 months I have experienced the grief, loss fear, heartbreak and frustration delivered by the disease we call “The Pandemic.” Now, I dress in gym clothes every morning, I do my meditation and exercise, and then, often, I don’t change. This “not changing,” is my own greatest reminder that I am not unique, and much that is missing.
I’d be going out, I’d be seen, I’d express myself via those outfits. I am grieving the spontaneity of what New York City -at its best- has to offer, the fun that comes from a long walk that was never planned , a new-found café- or bar- a return to a favorite, crowded restaurant, meeting friends, the giddiness of waiting in our seats at the theater or Lincoln Center, or going to a movie theater. I found my skates in storage and thought- when will I skate again? I found my ballroom dancing shoes and wondered when will I dance again? I empathize with everyone who’s is missing their “thing.” The sport they play, the gatherings they could not have, the weddings, graduations and high school shows and all the events that were cancelled. “Normal” life has been cancelled for the past 5 months, and my closet is a reminder of that.
But who, better than me knows how tricky that word “normal” is? After all, I am the mother of a neuro-diverse son- diagnosed with a complex syndrome that takes the word “normal” and scrambles it up- to mean absolutely nothing.
And who better than me could understand that desire to have “normalcy” when all else is gone.
Many years ago, when it became real that my son might never do certain things, like play a sport- or tie his shoes or handwrite, I was in the odyssey of defining my life by leaving “normal” and discovering new possibilities that he would show me.
I have been on that journey for 29 years.
When Daniel was two, it was 1993. Someone at his nursery school gave me this:
(we did not have the internet, so I do not know how it had been circulating.)
“I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability – to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this……
When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”
“Holland?!?” you say. “What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.”
But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.
So you must go out and buy new guidebooks. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It’s just a different place. It’s slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around…. and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills….and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy… and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.” …
But… if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things … about Holland.”
( Emily Perl Kingsley)
At the time, I couldn’t have imagined that my closet might somehow inspire me to share this simple but powerful missive, its relevance feels global even universal – and now, meaningful far beyond those who might share it with an audience so much different than the one it was written for.
Maybe I won’t be wearing all those clothes to places that felt exciting and fun and spontaneous, but maybe tonight, I’ll make a special dinner. I will get dressed-up. I’ll light candles and put on Sinatra and ask Jim if he’d like to dance.