Almost Normal

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Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash.
Photo by Kimson Doan on Unsplash.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I found myself sitting in the Great Room in the lodge at Easton Mountain, a retreat center for gay men in the wilds of Upstate New York. A formerly regular visitor, Easton was my second home for almost 20 years, a refuge. Now I'm back, sitting in a group of about 30 mostly middle-aged gay men for the first time since 2019. It feels both strange and natural, a taste of normal life after more than two years in a pandemic.

I started going to Easton when I was in my mid-40s, in the early '00s. Easton felt like a gay throwback to Kripalu, the ashram/yoga center where I lived in the early '90s, where I learned the basics of yoga and developed friendships that have enriched my life ever since. When Kripalu's residential community fell apart and my friends left, Easton took its place, filling a void in my life.

But even before Covid, my visits to Easton Mountain became sporadic; I was traveling, doing my one-man show at Fringe Festivals in the US and Canada. Then Covid came along, and my sense of isolation, along with my hunger for community, was reawakened—stronger than ever.

The weekend was a celebration of Easton's 22nd birthday and the kickoff to their summer season. (They had limited programming over the past two years, but they're hosting a full schedule this summer). At the opening circle, I looked around the room and felt reasonably comfortable in the indoor space, since everyone was vaccinated, boosted, and had a recent negative test. Still, it felt a bit strange to be close to other bodies, to be part of a large group after so many months of isolation.

On that first night I did the mental math, my habitual calculations regarding the potential risks of Covid exposure. I'd had the virus in April and had received my second booster, so I was in the sweet spot, that narrow window when I had a high level of protection—or so I hoped. The next evening, I did a reading from my memoir in front of a live audience in real space and time, something I've dearly missed.

And yet, by the second day of the retreat I was drained, exhausted. I wanted and needed connection, but I was out of practice, used to being on my own for days at a time. For a natural introvert like me, socializing takes practice; I felt like a runner who hadn't gone through his warm up routine.

I retreated back to my room, where I eventually got a second wind. I realized I needed to pace myself, that what was formerly normal was now novel, something rare and special.

Over the weekend, we had a pool party, a dance, and lit a bonfire in the woods. For the first time in two years, Covid wasn't the primary topic of conversation. Instead we talked about our work, our hobbies, and plans for summer vacations. I gave and received hugs without worrying about their potential consequences and my risk factors. For three days, I felt a chasm, a void of loneliness being partially filled.

Today, back in the real world, I'm still doing the mental math, gauging my risk of going a second round with Covid. I mask up on the T, at my gym, and in other indoor spaces. But I realize that I have to live my life, and that this is the new normal, in 2022.

I need connection, and I'm willing to take some risks to get it.

Judah Leblang is a writer, teacher, and storyteller in Boston, and an instructor at GrubStreet. Find out more at