I spent much of Thursday night virtually holding my 21-year-old niece's hand -- and she mine. She was alone in her house in Newton, MA, across the Mass Pike from Watertown, and she could hear the explosions and the sirens.
"Is this normal?" she asked as we texted through the night.
It is now.
We've turned a corner onto a new normal in the last year or so -- a year when everything feels dangerous and personal, close to home, right next door. "My daughter was born the week of Sandy Hook," a friend told me yesterday, and she thinks that as a mother she will be forever burdened by that baptism in joy laced with fear.
"In the past six months I have called my babysitter in a panic three times because the world was coming apart," a colleague said, last week, ticking off the Upper Westside Nanny Murders, Newtown and Boston, then realizing she had forgotten Superstorm Sandy. "Was it like this when you were a new parent?"
In a way, it is always like this. When you are a new parent, or a new adult, or new at mostly anything, the world takes on edges you'd never noticed were there. Sometimes they are quiet and personal realizations, but, many become generational touchstones.
My own new parent moment was Columbine, when I realized that instead of putting myself mentally in the shoes of the students, I was instead feeling the anguish of their parents. Then came 9/11, followed by anthrax scares, interrupted by a plane crash in Queens and then by a would be shoe bomber -- a cascade that left several generations forever aware that the unthinkable is possible.
While it might have always been this way, though, it is also the first time it has been exactly like this. My grandparents learned the world was a tinderbox from the radio and newsreels. My parents watched the Cuban Missile Crisis through a television screen. Last night, the mayhem in the streets of Boston was in all of our homes. Cell phone video brought us the gunshots as they happened. Nearly 100,000 people were listening in on the police radio through their laptops all night long. A new reality had come home to the people of Watertown, and also, to all of us.
Ten days after 9/11 I got an email from a publicist wondering if it was too soon to just pitch reporters regular old stories about mundane products that did not have anything to do with death and grief. When "do you see things getting back to normal..." he asked.
"This is the new normal," I answered back then.
Which makes this the new, new, new one.
And we will adapt. We will tuck this into our collective psyches, fold it into our social DNA, and readjust our expectations and our worries. We will add public sporting events to airports and schools on our mental lists of places to fear. But we will go anyway -- to class, to work, to the movies, to the office, to cheer at a glorious race.
Because that's the thing about normality -- we crave it, and it complies. It creeps back, always, softening those searing edges, diluting the intensity of the panic, allowing us to wake up on mornings like these after nights like the last one. "You've learned something," George Bernard Shaw wrote, "that always feels at first as if you had lost something."
Over and over we learn -- that we can't protect our children, that we can't guarantee tomorrow, that we should treasure today because tomorrow a crazy police chase might lock down your neighborhood. That is something lost, yes, but it is also something found. This is not the first time we have been knocked off our feet, and we are not the first generation to pick ourselves back up. That is normal.
It will take us a while. We'll mourn and grieve and recalibrate. And then ... We'll get started.