Tuesday, December 16, 2008


This essay first appeared in the excellent literary journal Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing. Check it out at http://isotope.usu.edu/ and if you like it, subscribe.

I live in Oswego, New York -- on the shores of Lake Ontario -- and write about our long winters quite frequently. This is one of my first essays to explore some of the aspects of the long, beautiful season. More will follow.

--Donna Steiner


As with any methodical task, there is a spiritual component to shoveling snow that only those repeatedly forced into doing it come to know. I say “forced” intentionally, although it is legitimate to wonder how one comes to a spiritual understanding through force. Rather than force, let me refer to “necessity.” I must, by necessity, shovel snow if I wish to survive the winter. As with many chores, shoveling brings, if not exactly pleasure, at least some measurable degree of satisfaction.

I live in what is good-naturedly called a snow belt. “Belt” often seems precise; we are belted, with regularity and almost inexplicable fervor, by weather systems that take their sweet time to reach us – these are nor’easters, coming up the coast languorously. At least that’s the way the Weather Channel depicts them, swirling and moseying along the mid-Atlantic until they take a breather over Central New York and dump a day or two’s worth of snow on us. More insidious, and much more common, is “lake effect” snow. My small town of Oswego, New York is situated smack on the south-eastern shore of Lake Ontario, and the cold air that crosses the relatively warmer lake can produce lingering, seductive winter scenes. Then it’s like a picture postcard – it can be so cozy from the inside, looking out: gorgeous, big flakes limning the pine and cherry trees and smoothing out the angles of the landscape until all we can see is a sinuous, blue-white world – a world of snow. This is a cumulative, expansive beauty, and it seems to stretch out forever. The “forever” part is what begins to feel oppressive – not the quick sharp sting of the belt, but the perpetual dread of the next strike.

Yesterday was a lake effect day – snowing when we woke up in the morning, snowing at lunchtime, and still snowing into the early afternoon. By 2:30 the storm had begun to let up, and I decided to go outside and shovel the walkway. The flu had knocked me for a loop all week and I wanted to take it easy; I figured I’d pace myself, shovel slowly – I intended to enjoy my task.
I’ve seen a neighbor kid go out to shovel wearing nothing but a pair of boots and jeans. He shovels maniacally, filling the shovel with heaps of snow and flinging it as far as he can. He’s the half-naked Paul Bunyan of snow shoveling, and if he doesn’t change his ways he’ll end up killing himself one of these days. Every season the television news features stories about idiots like this – men, often, who shovel fast and hard then drop dead of heart attacks. This kid has youth on his side but still, he’s asking for trouble. My lover and housemate, Leigh, takes the opposite approach; she puts on layer after layer, transforms from a slender but strong woman into a formidable, if somewhat puffy, entity. She wears two layers of pants, three shirts, two scarves, a face mask, a hat, boots over thick socks (sometimes two pair), heavy mittens, and a giant down coat. Even with all of the layers, she sometimes gets cold while snow-blowing the driveway. Simultaneously she works up a sweat – the driveway is long, steep in parts, and a repository for heavy snow. Those under-layers get soaked with sweat, and when she comes in it seems like she’s been sitting fully dressed in a sauna.

My approach is somewhere in the middle of the extremes. I don’t like to feel constricted by my clothes, so I usually wear jeans, a tee-shirt, a sweat shirt, and a light, insulated coat. My gloves aren’t really warm enough and my headband/ear-warmer – I can’t tolerate a hat – isn’t warm enough either. I wrap a scarf loosely around my neck. My boots are the only truly weather-appropriate things I wear. Keeping my feet warm, coupled with the effort of shoveling, allows me to maintain a fairly comfortable temperature.

My method of shoveling differs from Leigh’s and the boy next door’s as well. He’s flat-out crazy and expends much more energy than is called for; she is more considered, and can heft what appears to be a ton of snow with each shovel pass. I have two tactics, depending on the weight of the snow. Heavier snow demands vision; one must know the goal and set a course. I am not strong, so I scrape away at heavy snow little by little then lift it, slowly, to a more appropriate spot. Heavy snow is displaced more than removed. Heavy snow requires organizational skills and a steady disposition.

Lighter snow calls for equal amounts of flinging and pushing. One can shovel quickly when the snow is light, even if it accumulates up to a foot or so. I scoop it up, I throw it. Scoop and throw, scoop, sigh, throw – this is how the stairs get cleaned. There’s nothing fancy about my method; it’s part aerobics and part housekeeping. I can whistle while I work, as though I’m sweeping the kitchen. Depending on how much there is to shovel, by the time I come to the flat section, I’m often ready to push. First, however, I take a break at the landing. I’m tired, sweating, and it’s time to take a look at the world.

The world is… white. The ground is white, the sky is white, the air is full of white shavings, as though the sky were being scraped. The house and garage look like white-capped mushrooms. The lamppost is topped in white, the mailbox at the roadside is encased in white. Everything else is hidden by white. There is little definition; the world is sugar-coated, a good four feet of sugar which, even by gluttonous standards, is too much sweetness. One of those feet still needs to be shoveled, and so I continue. But the pushing phase is less strenuous and therefore more boring; it lacks rhythm but invites thought. My thought is simple: there’s too much fucking snow.

So much for the spiritual component of shoveling.

At four o’clock in the afternoon, the snow turns blue. A respite of light often breaks clear of the clouds, a golden light, and fleeting. It breaks free and shines through the trees, crosses the voluptuous snow banks, turns them blue, then vanishes. When the snow is blue the treetops are lit, too, and they glimmer red under a thin coating of ice.

Today I’m watching the last moments of shimmering treetops while Leigh sleeps, shaking off a headache that came while she removed a foot of heavy, new snow from the driveway. She sleeps it off the way some might sleep off a hangover, and while she sleeps I watch the clouds reliably part, allow us a brief allotment of sun in an otherwise overcast, bitterly cold and windy day. The temperature is in the teens, and the landscape is reduced to its essential colors. Browns (the abundant trees), white tinged with a blue wash (the snow), golds and reds (the horizon and the treetops), and – I’m not sure it’s a separate color so much as a statement on the season – a fair share of grays. I watch the colors, the clouds, the occasional swirls of snow. And I watch the trees, which sway and bend in the strong wind. What fails to bend will break, and every once in a while I’ll hear a loud pop and a branch will fall silently to the padded ground below. The trees seem to dance, appear to have thrown their arms above their torsos and move in time to a kind of arboreal call. Each has its own orbit, and it looks as though they never clash, never intersect, although of course that can’t be true. If I could elevate to the treetops I’d hear them clatter the way palm leaves do in the desert; the insulating silence of snow muffles all but the loudest, sharpest of noises.

Tomorrow I will brave the roads, drive an hour to the city hospital, roll up my sleeve and let a technician inject some radioactive isotope into a vein. The iodine will accumulate in my thyroid, which will then be scanned. I have been falling – literally falling – tripping over my own feet, falling hard down the stairs. And my muscles ache, as though a low-voltage current runs through my arms and legs, exhausting my limbs. I am gaining weight. Blood tests show thyroid imbalance. Everyone says it’s “nothing” – it’s easily treatable – but I’m a little alarmed. And so tomorrow I will be punctured for the fourth time. I will be temporarily radioactive. I asked the nurse if I’ll glow afterwards. "No,” she laughed. “At least, not any more than you already do.”

The hospital visit doesn’t happen. It’s cold, icy, the roads are bad, the snow is coming down hard. I will have to wait two more weeks for the tests, which means two more weeks without the medication that relieves the ache in my muscles.

As it turns out, during those two weeks in January we experience record-breaking cold. Temperatures fall overnight into the minus 20’s, in some places minus 30 or worse, and I hear on the news that the region hasn’t been this cold since 1956. The extreme cold reminds me of the extreme heat of Arizona – once it reaches a certain degree, hot is hot and cold is cold. When I lived in the desert, 113 wasn’t that much hotter than 108; similarly, minus 15 isn’t that much colder than minus 3. But it gives everyone something to talk about: Did your pipes freeze? I skidded around the corner near that big white house on West 5th; My windshield wiper fluid wouldn’t work; I hate it when people don’t clean the snow off their cars… and so on. I enjoy talking about the weather, love how strangers in the grocery store will just start in about it. Crazy cold, isn’t it? they say. I nod, smile, say yeah, I’ve spent the last six years in Arizona. “Arizona” seems to be a cue – they light up, they try to impress me, they become the best winter storytellers ever. And then we pay for our groceries and head out into the air that almost hurts with cold. The snow is mirage-like, the flakes shifting and tiny. Only the slap of glaze on our cheeks tells us there is any precipitation at all.

When it’s cold all the time, very cold for days on end, indoors and out, I can’t tell if I ache from the weather or from the symptoms of my condition. All I can tell is that my body hurts and nothing relieves the ache. I lie on the couch or on the bed under layers of blankets, layers so high I can’t see out from under them. Slowly I begin to warm. It’s hard not to miss the desert at times like that; hard to resist falling into a reverie about sunshine that lasts for months, about lounging in shorts and tank tops, about always-open windows and the desire for nakedness. It’s hard not to miss the abundance of skin one sees in southern Arizona; so much flesh, so many arms and legs and bellies and feet, so much apparent good health. It was easier to stay fit there; here, in central New York, we begin to soften, fatten up like young or not-so-young calves. By degrees, I am falling ever inward, burrowing ever deeper. Under the bulk of extra pounds, under the weight of too many layers of clothing, under the stacks of blankets, under feet of snow, under the perpetual gray clouds. It’s beginning to feel like being buried.

But there are things to love about this northerly world. Like: looking out the window at thousands of trees, thin branches made fat by several inches of snow. The nuanced, colored world made black and white temporarily, less visually complex but no less beautiful. The snow becomes an optical effect, the white being the “shadow” of the darker branches, as though the world were being viewed as a photographic negative. Although it is mostly just lines and curves, the landscape is not easy to describe, but it gives me deep satisfaction to look at it without speaking. I like the simplicity, the grace and lack of clutter. I could draw it if I wanted to. I understand what I see in a way that I never quite understood the desert. I felt exposed there. Here, I can hide.

Even my cat is cold. She suddenly likes to cuddle next to me or sometimes slink under the covers. While I write she visits and sits on the corner of my desk, where currents from the small space heater warm her. I know that once the temperature rises she will leave me again, go about her business until she is hungry and needs me. I am her source of heat and food and little more. But I can live with the illusion of affection and am happy to believe that she has come to me for comfort. The habits and trappings of love are sometimes quite enough.
Sometimes in the night I hear the roof beams creak and wonder how much snow it would take to cave in on top of us.

The temperature has risen to –7, the warmest it has been all week. I’m a little stir crazy, and decide to take advantage of the heat wave. I head for the lake.

Lake Ontario looks, to the uninitiated eye, much like the sea. During non-winter months, waves lap at the rocky shore. The first time I saw the lake, a friend said that come winter, the water would appear to freeze in motion, and it has. All the way to the horizon, the lake’s surface is white ice, ridged and dramatic. At the jetties the water is frozen in waves, as though in a split second they’d been stricken solid, halted in air, mid-crash. The nearby river, too, freezes in places; its surface looks like giant, angular tiles of piled ice, as though it originally froze as a slab but continued to move and ended up buckling and breaking into large shards. I would like to look at all this ice close up, try to determine exactly how it froze, but so far it has been too cold for this type of extended observation. What is important to me now is its current appearance – the lake and the river, frozen, are something I have never seen. They hold the beauty of the unknown and, I’ll admit, are irresistible in large part because it has never occurred to me to even imagine them in their frozen form. I’d like to walk out on the ice, but the combination of extreme cold and common sense win out. I drive home. On my way, the sun breaks through the clouds and illuminates the snow – it begins to shine like diamonds. Each drift of snow has the elegant convexity of a blister, and the snow on the branches is ineffably rich, as though sheer white cream has frosted the trees. I sometimes feel like Leigh’s dog does, a big black Lab who likes to run in the snow and just sink her muzzle into a voluptuous bank, snapping at it, gulping it down, expecting, it seems, something more than a mouthful of icy water. I think of my mother in the presence of infants; when she lowers her face to their clean, swaddled bellies she says “I wanna eat you up.” Moments like this, that’s how I feel about the land.

So much beauty comes with a price, of course. The major highways leading into the nearest city were treacherous yesterday, the salt being ineffective once the temperature falls close to zero. Hundreds of accidents and disabled vehicles; there weren’t enough tow trucks to take care of the problem, and the police and the DPW urged motorists to stay off the roads until salt trucks and plows could do their jobs. In the last week or so, a few people have died from the cold; often it’s the elderly who don’t or can’t turn up their heat and hypothermia sets in. Sometimes it’s a hiker or camper who overestimates their survival skills, sometimes a skier goes off-trail and gets lost, freezes to death. People fall through thin ice, have heart attacks while shoveling, tumble from slick roofs and break bones on icy sidewalks. Kids riding sleds lose fingers to the sharp runners or get concussions when they’re hit by an out-of-control toboggan. The local emergency rooms report a high incidence of hand injuries: people trying to clear their snow blowers using their fingers. Cars dent other cars, tree limbs fall from the weight of snow and ice, houses are damaged by the melting snow that leaks into their roofs and walls, bushes and shrubs are crushed by falling slabs of ice, frostbite claims the tender edges of the ear, the tips of noses, toes… Already I’ve slipped a few times, pulled muscles, bruised ribs. My car slid around a corner the other day and, had there been any traffic, I’d have run head-on into the unlucky driver. My tire rims have rusted from the salt, having lost their hubcaps a while back. The windshield wiper fluid distributors have been frozen for weeks; I have to unclog them with an unbent paper clip before I head out. Leigh’s car was hit and dented in the drug store parking lot. Her friend Bob’s car and his wife’s car both wouldn’t start the other day. Brad’s wife Teresa, who teaches in the elementary school, is beginning to worry that she’ll be teaching a little longer into this summer; the local schools have used up all their snow days already. I’ve run out of medication and haven’t gotten to the store to pick up a refill. I wonder how many other people have this problem of needing meds and the weather being too cold or the roads too slick to get to the pharmacy. I’m not in any danger, but there are a lot of elderly people in this town who might be.

The cold makes me want to hibernate, to be quiet, to hide, to meditate and contemplate and ponder and hunker down. Conversely, I begin to feel increasingly antsy. “Cabin fever” usually doesn’t set in, for me, until February. But this year, maybe because I’m no longer used to the rhythms of the seasons in the northeast, it comes early. I want the snow to stop. I want the roads to be clear and the temperatures milder. I want to be able to leave the house without considering, at great length, what to wear, what route to drive, how long my excursion will take. I want extended sunshine. I want to take a walk. I want to feel something other than somber.

There’s a generosity to all this ice and cold and snow that feels, oddly, like exactly the opposite, like a lack of generosity. Abundance can be stifling. This is a lesson of nature.

The icicles hanging from the eaves are bigger than I am. A friend told me once about some girls she’d attended grade school with; she called them “the crazy Hobart twins.” One day the crazy Hobart twins were walking downtown and a massive icicle came loose from the roof of the cathedral and killed one of the twins. I’ve always wondered what became of the other one, but nobody seems to know. People just melt into the landscape sometimes.

Just as it seems like we might escape January and tackle the customary onslaught (but merciful brevity) of February, a four-day lake effect snow storm hits. Our town becomes the pivot from which the band of snow “oscillates,” which mostly means it sways, imperceptibly, slightly to the north, slightly to the south. During the worst of it, we receive six inches an hour. Leigh plows the driveway twice a day for four days, barely able to keep up. By the end of the stretch, seven feet of new snow covers the ground. A state of emergency is declared in the county. The highways, according to t.v. news, are “impassable.” When we hear this, we look at each other in bewilderment. We’ve lived here, cumulatively, for almost 50 years. Neither of us recall the word “impassable” being used before.

On the fifth day, we need to get out of the house. We have no idea if the state of emergency has been lifted, but we trudge to the car and head to the grocery store. The roads are icy; snow blows across our path. The wind is sharp and whips the top layers of snow into whorled, snake-like patterns; the air looks smoky, but it’s just whirling snow. Every road is lined with high, sculptural banks. The mail hasn’t been delivered in two days; most roadside mailboxes are either buried or busted from the plows. Everyone’s out shoveling or snow blowing their driveways and sidewalks. It’s Saturday and a lot of people haven’t been able to keep up with weekday snow removal. Almost everyone we pass stops in their work and watches us drive by, as though holding out hope that we might stop and help. We don’t stop.

Nobody has been able to shop for a few days; the store shelves are fully stocked. We buy everything we need and some things we don’t, feeling ravenous even though we’ve had plenty to eat. Partly it feels good just to be around other people; partly we don’t want to go back out on the roads quite yet. We can see through the big plate glass store windows that the snow has picked up again. I’ve begun to wonder if it might never end. As if on cue, Leigh says “Go grab us a newspaper.” The headline: OSWEGO BURIED; SNOW ‘NEVER STOPS.’ We read all about what we already know, but seeing the blitz verified in print makes it more exciting. “The storm has spent the last 2 days punishing a swath of the county…” “As snow bands go, this one was particularly lazy, shifting little during the 36 hours it did its heaviest damage.” Well, yeah, lazy in that respect – it didn’t like to move. But it was absolutely not lazy in doing its damage. I’d call it a conscientious, hard-working storm. I’d call it a workaholic. I’d say we were soundly and roundly belted.

It is hard to be exposed to the cold for so long without becoming cold deep in the heart.
Just as I write that last line the snow stops and I can see a small clearing in the clouds. The sky isn’t quite blue, but it’s less white. My heartbeat quickens; I hope, so fervently that it’s almost absurd, that the sun will come out for a little while.

Tomorrow, again, I will travel to the hospital for tests. My plan is to go regardless of the weather; I’ve already cancelled once and I want to get back on the medication. Pain is a motivator. It is also a depressor; much like the cold, it’s the duration that disturbs. I feel I’ll be putting my neck on the line, figuratively and literally, exposing my throat in a way that feels vulnerable and scary. One of the possible findings: cancer. Another: nodules that can grow to block one’s windpipe, disturb one’s speech. As a kid I thought if I said certain things aloud, they’d come true. I haven’t progressed much beyond that, and so have focussed on the most likely, most treatable options. I expect to be fine. That is what I say aloud.
The real lesson of the cold, of all the extremes of our seasons, may be resilience. Through an accumulation of days and months and years, one learns to endure. One learns what one can bear, and often it is more than anticipated. We learn to survive the day-to-day disappointments, the slights and misunderstandings, we weather storms and droughts of both real and metaphorical intensity. Actually, we do more than survive; we develop a great capacity for joy and delight; we learn to play and to love and to nurture and share and we develop our gifts for generosity and intimacy and pleasure. This seems to happen in imperceptible increments; a scientist would be hard-pressed, I think, to isolate the moment we first felt jubilance or the precise series of gestures, thoughts and feelings that led to the last time we fell, wholly, deeply and irrevocably, in love.

I can’t know, but I suspect I will survive winters as cold or colder than this one or, if circumstances change, summers as hot as those I spent in the desert. My acclimatization is slow; I need time to consider and reflect on everything – the slant of snow; the way my arm feels when the phlebotomist inserts the needle; my lover’s startled delight in the morning when she looks at me as though she’s never seen me before. And maybe that’s the bottom line – we have, none of us, truly seen any of this before.

When I drive to the hospital tomorrow and steer my car into unavoidable slides; when I sign in, fill out forms; when I unwrap my scarf and feel the cold air on my neck; and especially when I lean my head back and give my throat up to the x-ray, the ultrasound, the experienced touch of the doctor, I will try to remember that. Some icicles fall, when they begin to melt, in an arc, as though continuing a curve of their own making. I want to fall like that. So that when I land, I am somewhere surprising, a little off from where I’d expected.

The cold is bracing. We don’t know it yet, but February will dazzle us with sunshine.

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