The layers of abnormal are adding up.
I’m snowblowing my driveway in the darkness before dawn—the whipping wind making it feel like thirty degrees below zero—when that thought enters my mind.
It’s a Tuesday morning in the twelfth month of a pandemic. That’s abnormal. Last night I went to bed exhausted, achy, and feverish, following the second dose of a vaccine intended to end that pandemic. That’s abnormal. I’d gone to sleep right after leading a virtual event in conjunction with the release of my new book. Virtual book tours. That’s abnormal. The virtual event had a low turnout because Texas is in the middle of an apocalyptic weather event. That’s abnormal. It’s the tenth consecutive day of a sub-zero polar vortex in Chicago. That’s abnormal. This morning, for the first time in eleven months, all three of my kids were supposed to be attending school in-person again. Nope.
The winter storm postponed that return to normality, too.
The layers of abnormal are adding up, I think to myself, shivering, tired, sore, and trying to make sure I’m not snowblowing a flowerbed in the dark. I used to hate change. I used to resist it, turning myself and my life into an unhealthy pretzel in my effort to keep things feeling the same and safe and stable. These days, though, I gladly accept that change is a part of life, and a good part of life. I’m flexible now. I bend, just not like an unhealthy pretzel.
How far can you bend, though, before you start to break?
The layers of abnormal are adding up, I think, and I’m not sure how many more I can carry before I buckle under the weight of them. I miss gathering together with my friends and laughing about life. I miss sitting in the stands or the seats at my kids’ swim meets and soccer games and opening nights. I miss seeing the lower half of my employees’ faces. I miss temperatures you can go for a walk in. I miss normal.
I’m thinking all of this as I blow the last bit of snow from the driveway and switch off the machine. I stand there, looking east, where the sky is now clear and bright. And that’s when I hear it. Its call is clear and exquisite and rhythmic. It is coming from the forest across the street from our house: the day-dawning chirping of a cardinal. It moves me to tears and I’m confused by my emotions until I hear in that repetitive, rhythmic call the thing I’ve been longing for:
It’s as if my snowblown thoughts had formed some kind of prayerful lament, and my prayer was being answered, and it was being answered in the form of this sound: the utterly normal chirping of a cardinal on an utterly abnormal morning. It felt like God was calling to me through its creation and saying, “Yes, the layers of abnormal are adding up, but there is still something solid and reliable and normal and blessed right here, underneath all those layers; indeed it is the foundation upon which all those layers are sitting.” In that silly bird’s call I heard the call to simply rest on the normal, sacred foundation of everything.
I was busy, though.
I had a clinical day to get underway, with a video session at 7am. So, I quickly parked the snowblower in the garage, hustled inside, changed into therapist-looking clothes, and logged on for my first appointment. And if that’s all that had happened, I would not have remembered that blessed cardinal and I would not be writing this to you right now. But the answer to my prayerful lament was not over. As the sun came fully up, something remarkable happened.
In the crabapple tree, just outside the window, exactly one week after True Companions was released, two companions came to perch.
A bright red male cardinal and his more humbly feathered female companion suddenly alighted in the branches of the tree, about two feet apart, both of them staring directly into the window at me. And they remained that way, for forty-five minutes. Looking right at me, as if to say, “Don’t miss this intentional answer to your accidental prayer, Kelly. There is so much blessed normality woven throughout these abnormal times. The foundation is solid. Look for it and see it. Listen for it and hear it. These will be the sights and sounds that save you and sustain you.”
So, for the last few days, I’ve been watching and listening and I’m noticing that, even as the world turns upside down, its foundation is always under my feet. We are ensconced in a normality that we can stand stably on, that we can trust, that we can enjoy, that we can rejoice in. I’m seeing it in the world. I’m seeing it in my companions. I’m seeing it in myself. I’m hearing it in all things.
May you watch,
may you listen,
and may you, too,
by the everyday sights and sounds
that can sustain you.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.