New Normal

August 15, 2022

By Helena Michie, Professor of English, Rice University 

Renée Fox, Helena Michie, and Sharon Aronofsky Weltman

The road is both familiar and unfamiliar. You are in a rental car on California 17, a highway you have travelled once a year for 30 years. Not used to hairpin turns, to rapid changes in elevation, or even to changing gears, you realize that you are not in south Texas anymore. Yet you go faster, because you want to get there—to Santa Cruz and the New Normal.

It is late summer and time for the annual week-long Dickens Conference, referred to with casual hubris as the “Dickens Universe.” “Annual” is not completely accurate in this time of disaster; for two years the conference was virtual. There were no deer on Zoom, or baby foxes; no glimpses of the Pacific Ocean or smell of cedar and redwoods. There were no dorm rooms with unplugged stoves and single beds with plastic mattresses. No midnight walks, or talks, or feasts. No friends who shared your allusions to—and sometimes illusions about—Victorian novels.

As you hurtle down 17, tantalizingly close to the coast which, you have to remind yourself, is somewhere to the right despite the fact are travelling South, you think about those missing years and wonder if they count. By “count”, you mean towards the amount of times you’ve been part of the conference, a very important number given one of the signature rituals that starts each event. Every year John Jordan, director of the Universe, invites participants to publicly declare how many times they have attended the conference. Participants—faculty, graduate, undergraduate students, and members of the public, stand and then, gradually, sit as John goes through the years. “How many of you have been to two universes?” as all the newcomers sit.  He moves on to three, and then five, and then ten, twenty, thirty, and up to what we have all learned to call the beginning of the universe, in 1980. You are left standing a very long time, almost but not quite as long as the founders of the Dickens Project, and Trudy, the most loyal member of the public. You started attending in 1990, when you were young and a newcomer, and one of very few women faculty. Over the years, as people stop coming back, become ill, die, or turn to other summer experiences, fewer and fewer stand late in the ritual. You stand long enough to realize that you are quite old, and that you have read a lot of Dickens.

You are preoccupied with this counting thing, not so much because you enjoy the gasps as people realize how long you have been coming, but because, for you, the Dickens conference is all about time: it marks—more than your university orientation week or the (always belated) ordering of textbooks—the turn of the school year, the end of that phase of summer where anything seems possible. For some people, the different years are marked—and remembered—by the Dickens (and sometimes, 5 times, a second non-Dickens) book that was featured. The year we last did David Copperfield. The year everyone hated the Christmas books, the unique year where we left Dickens for George Eliot and Middlemarch. There are t-shirts, with the name of the book, an image (usually an illustration), and the date. You wish you had bought the t-shirts every year, that you had collected them. This might help you remember.

For you—and you think for other regular attendees—there is a different kind of counting. Most years are marked by an event in your life or in the life of a friend: the year a friend got divorced, or died, or had twins, or changed jobs, or was recovering from a heart attack and couldn’t walk up the hill, or got drunk and fell down the concrete stairs. The year (your first) when you were pregnant with your older son (you do not remember the featured book, but you remember struggling up the path from the dining room to the lecture hall, heavy with food and the baby.) The year your son got cancer and you landed suddenly among concerned friends, a slug without a protective shell, a ghost at the feast. The years that you had just published a book and could count, in this place unlike every other in the universe, on several people having read it. This year is the first pandemic year, and everyone has a story, everyone has time to mark.

The conference itself is both familiar and unfamiliar. The redwoods are there, and the deer, although there are more wild turkeys and no foxes. The place smells the same, of cedar and rosemary and—perhaps you only imagine this—faintly of the ocean with its shock of aquamarine you as you move from the woods to open ground. You gather with the universe participants outside the lecture hall for drinks and decide once again that the t-shirts for sale there will not really fit you. You eat breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria—although this year you make sure always to sit outside, even when in is cold and the fog drips into your morning coffee. You listen to lectures—and give one—schooling yourself to the 50 minutes that seems so short when you are talking and so long when someone else is. Your back hurts from sitting still in wooden chairs and leaning forward to focus on every word of every lecture. It hurts more every year, as you age, but never as much as it did the first year, when you were pregnant.

Everything also feels different. You think it must be the masks, which everyone is required to wear inside in public places. They are another reminder of your body, your aging body that has returned to the harness of wood chairs now for 30—or 32 years, depending on how you count. Even the speaker on the elevated stage must be masked unless they take a COVID antigen test in the half hour or so before the talk. You were one of the first speakers and elected to take the test, although you imagined, in detail, being whisked off the stage in front of everyone, your notes left on the podium for someone else to read. Two people have volunteered, just in case. You wonder which one would be better, and if better means “more like me.” Because you always prepare for the worst, you have written out all the jokes, although you think perhaps your substitutes might like to skip them since they are kind of personal. Luckily your test is negative. You mount the stage and remove your mask—this always feels unnecessarily dramatic, as you peel it off your face from left to right-- and announce that you have tested positive. No one seems to notice. You default to an easy scapegoat: “I must be channeling Trump, you say, to an audience that you know has some but probably not many Trump voters in it. “I had a very good, very positive test.” This is not a joke you have written out. As far as you can tell, this particular joke was unnecessary; your audience assumed that everything was OK. They settle in for the familiarity of your talk. Your hope, this year, was to be a bridge between past Dickens conferences and this one, which features both David Copperfield and Frances W. Harper’s Iola Leroy, the first time the universe has paired a Dickens book with a book by an African American author. You hope to be both familiar and unfamiliar. 

The masks are for public places, it turns out. You do not have to wear one in the suite you share with two friends and colleagues. As is the tradition, faculty are housed along a few staircases in one or two buildings. As usual, they drop into each other’s rooms for a midnight feast menu of wine, chips, and stone fruit. We all live with the fiction that we cannot get COVID from each other, that we are somehow a household. Perhaps it is the two years of missing your colleagues, or perhaps it is the fantasy of household, but you feel closer to everyone than you probably ever have. The dorm room becomes your home, your colleagues' guests. One of your suitemates has an electric kettle and good tea from England. The other one makes shockingly good coffee every morning. You buy peaches and flowers; one of your friends from the suite below contributes his water bottle as a vase. This is the first year that you make your bed neatly every day, carefully smoothing the comforter that another friend has driven down for you from LA.

The focus on household could easily make you less open to talking to students or members of the public. It is at times like this you remember that you have historically been bad at small talk.  Although you talk to fewer people who are not faculty, you have longer conversations with the ones you do engage with. You rush to exchange pandemic stories; no talk feels small. And there is the bigness of the issues this year’s pairings invoke: slavery, reconstruction, racial and sexual violence. There is a lot to talk about, even if you can’t hear everything people say behind their masks.

You realize, of course, almost every year of the Dickens Universe created a new normal. Over time, the conference adapted to the presence of female scholars, to the recession of 2009, and the subsequent unfunding that almost killed it. It has dealt, imperfectly but persistently, with divisions among the faculty over Israel and Palestine, with bad behavior of all kinds, with student walkouts, and with disputes over governance. There has been racism, overt and less overt, which does not automatically disappear with the inclusion of a book by an African American writer. Normal—old or new-- is not always a good thing. Still, for you, after 32 years (you have decided to include them all), the Dickens Universe signals a kind of hope that is as much about change as it is about return.

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