The Defeat of Normalization

Is it possible to be so steeped in the environment around you that you no longer notice it? So desensitized that certain elements no longer register?

This happens at home, when I become so used to seeing a piece of fruit — a mango for example — sitting on the counter, not yet ripe. The time eventually comes when I no longer see the mango. Of course my eyes still notice its form on the counter, but I no longer perceive it with my mind as something about which I need to do anything. Day after day it grows more ripe, until one day — one small window of time in a single day — it finally reaches peak ripeness. And then it begins to turn. It grows soft, a sticky sweet and fermented liquid seeps from somewhere beneath it. The outer skin shows its age in wrinkles. I see all of this without seeing. I never think, “I should eat that mango today.”

I first noticed this phenomena on an international level when I traveled to Australia for the first time, in 2016. I was staying on the Sunshine Coast, on the far east side of the country, where palm trees and tropical birds flourish along the coastline.

I was sick with the flu, or something like it, and aside from the first day when I was still well I spent the entire week in a hotel room feeling miserable. Because I spent so little time in the sun that week, I never adapted to the opposite time zone, and would frequently find myself awake in the middle of the night, or very early in the morning. It was not the wide awake, refreshed feeling after a good night’s sleep, but the restless, achy gloom of sickness. During these times, I would leave my room and step out onto the colonnade and take in the still, warm, Australian night while leaning against the balcony railing. Every man-made surface was painted white, from the floors and walls to the doors, ceiling and railing. It was a sharp contrast to the darkness of night and the deep green foliage of the large tropical trees that filled the center of the courtyard. From my place on the fourth floor, I could hardly see the rooms on the other side of the courtyard through the abundant trees.

The first time I stood outside in the night, I heard, above the faint sound of the ocean, a haunting whistle from below. It reminded me of the mockingjay song from The Hunger Games, a tune of four or five or six notes. It remains to this day the most singular memory I have from any trip abroad.

I peered over the railing and expected to see a groundskeeper working below, but there was nothing. My eyes were hot with fever and watering a little around the edges. The whistle rang out again and I was certain it was the whistle of a man — perhaps a maintenance worker or trash collector — but it was impossible to know exactly from which direction it came as it echoed through the trees.

I heard the whistle yet again, but this time it was not below me but above. Hardly a moment later, it called out again from below. Two whistles, I realized. A ridiculous, fever-induced possibility entered my mind: it was two humans whistling to one another in a sort of code, forbidden lovers communicating in the night. But the melody was changing now. It morphed from a haunting call to a mournful song. One or two notes had plunged into a minor key, taking my heart with them. Some sad story was playing out and I held my breath in the pauses between the whistles. It was, I considered for the first time, perhaps a bird, or two birds, rather, to whom something incredibly heartbreaking had happened. I pictured a nest once laden with ovoid shells, now empty, some cruel predator feasting on the legacy of the solemn whistlers. A whistle again cut through the stillness.

I could no longer bear the ache of the song and returned to my room feeling lonely and homesick and dreading the hours of darkness before the sun would rise. From inside my room, I could still make out the now-familiar tune ringing outside. I lay down in my sweat-dampened bed, still feverish and uncomfortable, and willed sleep to come. It did, finally, hours later as the whistling burned away in the rays of the budding sun.

Some time later, someone took me to a hospital. I don’t recall leaving the hotel or getting into a vehicle, but I remember looking out the window of a fast-moving car, watching the unfamiliar trees rushing by, my head pounding and stomach churning from illness and from the motion of the vehicle as it passed through endless roundabouts. I remember asking about the birds, for now I was sure they were birds, wanting to know what kind of bird could so finely mimic the sound of a human whistle, and cry so soulfully. I remember trying to describe the sounds, using all the words that could possibly trigger recollection for another individual: haunting, human, clear, loud, soulful, sad, four-or-five-notes, over and over, in the dark of night, or perhaps just before dawn. But there was nothing. No one who lived there could tell me what I had heard.

Years later, I carry the whistle in my memory. I search online for the bird call one day. I find it. Only foreigners, or ornithologists, or true bird lovers, seem to know the call of which I speak. The bird is a Pied Butcherbird. Their calls do not sound haunting in exactly the way I remember, which makes me wonder if my birds truly were in mourning, or if the fever distorted my perception, bending the sounds into something different.

I realize now that perhaps I only noticed the call because I had never heard it before, unlike those who lived there and perhaps heard the sound every day of their existence.

And it makes me wonder what I might be overlooking in my own environment day after day. What things might I see if I could look with fresh eyes? What sounds might I hear that I no longer notice? What rich and beautiful and stirring things might I experience if I were somehow able to strip away the fog that normalization has created.

This is why writing matters.

Writing makes it possible to see with new eyes — through and beyond and around and into the fog. Writing can make it possible to experience the world, or some tiny part of it, in a new way. So now I go in search of the pied butcherbirds that have been singing all around me every day of my life.