catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 2 :: 2011.01.28 — 2011.02.10


Snowed in

As I recall, she was blonde. Now, given the rest of the story, understand that I don’t mean to suggest anything about blondes in general, and besides, I can’t be certain, because she was wearing one of those knit hats that obscure most of one’s hair in an attempt to keep warm. I met her for a few moments last winter, as, after shoveling out my and my wife’s cars, I was working on a friend’s car. She caught my attention by spinning the tires of her Jeep Cherokee in futility as she attempted to back out of her parking space in our apartment complex, which was buried under 14 inches of snow. She got out of the car, and stared at her back tires in bewilderment. She had an Arkansas license plate, leading me to suspect that she had never been exposed to this sort of weather before. I hefted my shovel and went to be a good neighbor. In just a few minutes, I shoveled out her tires and taught her how to “rock” her Jeep free of the snow.

Years ago, when I lived several hours north of Virginia, winter was a most brutal experience. The struggle began while I was in college. I remember looking out of my apartment window at the dreary, sunless, grey midday sky that seemed to have lasted for weeks, and thinking that it was holding all light and warmth away from my life. I remember struggling to see what was above that bleak ceiling, wondered what it would be like to pierce through it and transcend the oppressive cold in some way.

About four years after finishing my undergraduate studies, I needed medication to make it through the winters — just enough to take the edge off, to be able to convince myself that the snow in my headlights was charming somehow, in its own way. That was wishful thinking. I never really convinced myself, but the complete depths of despair could be avoided by means of a low dosage of an anti-depressant. I decided to move south because, among other reasons, I hated the winter and the cold. If I never saw snow again, I told someone once, I could die a happy man.

The first week that I lived in Virginia, in the middle of January, I was able to drive with no jacket and my sunroof open. Even after the coldest of February overnight lows, the sunlight returned the next day. Snow is rare enough here that local newspapers run stories about it being in the forecast. I have not required medication during winter months since moving here. I have, however, experienced other frustrations.

For all of its climatic perks, Virginia continues to experience winter at some level. Two or three “significant” snowfalls typically occur during the first two months of the year. This season, there was even a white Christmas, the first in many years. Unfortunately, the most insignificant (in the eyes of a Northerner) of snowfalls can paralyze Virginia, because the rarity of the event leads to a lack of infrastructure investment to deal with such weather. Road crews wait until a storm is over, and then attempt to mobilize to dig out from under the accumulation. Businesses close for as little a three inches of snow, schools for as a little as one. In fact, school systems close if snow is in the forecast here. Any snowfall results in panicked local residents rushing to grocery stores and purchasing all of the bread and milk they can find (I still don’t understand that one), convinced that a few inches of snow will confine them to their homes for days.  And, in their defense, some rural homes were inaccessible for days last winter after twelve inches of snowfall.

Local residents regard you quizzically for shoveling out your car halfway through a storm, not understanding how much easier this makes the job at the end. They don’t know how to park, or how to drive, in snow. Snow tires are not sold here. As with the neighbor from Arkansas, owning a snow shovel in our apartment complex can award you the status of a local hero.

Thus, in place of the ability to go on with life uninterrupted in the storm, the coping mechanism here is to batten down the proverbial hatches and wait out the storm. As exasperating as it can be for a Northerner, this is how Southerners function, and the unexpected days off can actually be relaxing.  Also, the brevity of any winter events here have typically compensated for any frustrations that I’ve felt. Typically.

Last winter, for the first time I can remember since moving here, we endured several days of sunless, grey, dreary and snowy bleakness. At the end of almost a week, after being snowed in by amounts of snow that should never paralyze a civilized area, I had an experience that I hadn’t had in a very long time. I broke down crying on the sofa. My wife didn’t know how to respond. I just wanted it to stop. I just wanted the sunlight to return. I would have given almost anything for a few moments of warm sun, but it was inaccessible, and I had so much difficulty convincing myself that it would ever return.

I’ve lived in Virginia for five years, now. Winters like last winter are certainly the exception to the rule. Yet, there are other factors that have more than driven me to distraction in lieu of bad winters. Virginians can’t drive in the snow, but, truth be told, driving habits and highway layouts are just…different…here altogether. The only thing that moves quickly in Southern culture is the construction of buildings. Politeness and small talk takes up what a Northerner considers a frustrating amount of valuable time, and I’ve heard Southerners admit that you can say derogatory things about someone as long as you append it with, “bless his little heart.” So, I’m left in a conundrum. I love the climate of the southeastern U.S., but the culture has worn out its welcome for me. I love the culture of the North, but the climate nearly destroys me for four months of the year. In order to escape the days of darkness that I dread so much — in order to not concern myself with snow and all of the mess it brings — I’ve had to lose a way of life to which I had grown accustomed. As much as four months of the average year depressed and frustrated me, I was surrounded by a culture that knew how to handle it. I could easily navigate through streets that were cleared of snowfall, no matter how significant the snowfall had been. Christmas lights earned their right to pierce through the window and illuminate the white landscape beyond. I don’t remember Christmas feeling like Christmas in Virginia. It’s almost as though the lights don’t have anything to illuminate. While I would normally never lament that fact, it seems a bit sad during that particular season.

Perhaps I’m reaching a bit, but there’s a metaphor at work here, I think. Avoidance of the dark periods of our lives does not necessarily improve our lives. This is especially true when we lose our ability to cope with, or effectively navigate through, the darkness because we’ve experienced so little of it for so long. There’s something to be said for being able to work with a worst-case scenario. The times through which we struggle in our lives make us better able to celebrate the brighter times that follow. They also make the struggle itself, if not easier, at least a more familiar experience the next time. Would I have been able to cope with my sudden depression last winter had I not experienced worse bouts in life? Could I have helped the poor clueless Arkansas girl if I didn’t know how to handle a vehicle in a few inches of the white stuff?

Not wanting to deal with a situation and not being able to deal with a situation are two entirely different things, and one is much worse than the other. Having the ability and the resources to handle an unwanted event permits us to give meaning to the dark periods through which we have struggled, because we can recognize others going through the same experience, and even further, to help them. In the spiritual sense, we are better able to be distributors of grace, of second chances, even of forgiveness, when helping those around us who don’t know how to shovel out of the metaphorical snow in which they are trapped. As much as we may hate aspects of our past, we must never refuse to accept them as part of us, even if it means returning to them at some level, because in accepting them, we are stronger. When we are stronger, we make those around us stronger as well. Our experiences, then, work to the advantage of all of those around us, and we truly become the keepers of our brothers and sisters.

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