We’ve had a cold winter, but no snow to hoot about until February 16th. I love when the snow sneaks in during the night blanketing our worn winter browns with the crisp freshness of white. But this year, instead of masking the landscape, the snow revealed to me how much life keeps right on happening despite temperatures that chase me indoors. The garden was littered with rabbit tracks. I’d forgotten all about rabbits since last spring, and I’ve not seen a sign of one since. Clearly, hibernating inside diminishes my observation skills.
The snow also revealed more bird species wintering nearby than typically visit my feeding station. All winter I’ve had cardinals, tufted titmice, chickadees, white-throated sparrows and Carolina wrens come to eat my offerings of suet and sunflower seeds. But ever since the snow on February 16th and continuing through the heavy snow on the 21st the diversity at my feeding station (right outside my kitchen window) has more than doubled to include: white-breasted nuthatches, goldfinches, house finches, juncos, eastern towhees, fox and song sparrows, and a downy woodpecker and red-headed woodpecker (these last are singular because I only ever see one at a time). And one day I noticed a large flock of robins on the other side of the house from the feeder. They were perched in a tree and taking turns bathing in the ice water melting off the roof into the gutter. Brrr. Adaptability to winter life fascinates me.
That first snow day, though anticipated for weeks, did not fill me with the usual cheer and excitement. The problem started the day before.
Chris and I had spent the day at home, and after lunch we walked the property to check on wind damage from the night before. Our first stop, and where we spent the next two hours working in 20°F weather, was the studio workshop. The tin roof had lifted, twisted, and peeled back exposing the lathe and insulation below. The brief thrill I experienced seeing it (because of the power of nature) was quickly replaced with a feeling of doom (because of the power of nature). We had building materials that couldn’t get wet stored under the exposed roof.
While Chris climbed on the roof to pull the roof back and then hammer and screw each of the four peeled panels into place, I stood on the ladder handing him screws, basically being there to call 911 if he fell off. Despite my daily 3-mile walk since Christmas, I couldn’t handle the cold. This is the general gist of our conversation spread out over the two hours. My thoughts are in italics.
Chris: We just need to fix it enough until we can get it done right.
Me: Uh huh. It’s so cold.
Chris: These screws are great.
Me: Good. I’m so cold.
Chris: Roofers must have some special tool for crimping over the edges.
Me: Hmmm. I’m freezing.
Chris: Thank goodness we had these screws.
Me: (Noting there’s three more panels to screw down). Couldn’t we call it quits and just cover the stuff inside with plastic? I can’t feel my fingers.
Chris: I can probably just silicone the gaps myself.
Me: Why isn’t he cursing? I’m f’ing freezing!
You’ll notice I quit talking out loud. Is that a sign of hypothermia? I was having trouble with how Pollyanna he was about the whole thing. Not only did he never curse, he never said a word about the cold. Why couldn’t I be more mature? An image of a homeless person sleeping out in this weather froze in my mind.
I couldn’t thaw that image when I sat by my fire. Countless lives are too cold. I couldn’t chip away at that image when I fed my body and soul with homemade soup. Countless lives are hungry. And when I woke excited to greet the snow and my ‘personal disaster’ snow day, that homeless person was still frozen in my mind. I felt the weight of so many injustices – a weight I try to keep at arm’s length for sanity – settle in my chest. There are too many ways – poverty, human trafficking, racism, sexism, wars, big pharma, CAFO’s, and climate change, to name some – that humans destroy humanity.
I know I haven’t stumbled on some new awareness about life. Lamenting over the human condition is nothing new to me or to others. I don’t have enough money or expertise to take direct action against big problems, but I believe, perhaps by necessity, in small, cumulative actions. Do they really matter? Perhaps not always, perhaps not in one lifetime, but I believe they can matter, and they are sometimes the only things any one human can do.
Serendipitously, I read a friend’s timely blog post that morning that helped me with the weight in my chest (http://lesleywheeler.org/). While Lesley is questioning her ability to relate to the nonhuman, something I usually do on this blog, I can relate her words to my problem of feeling powerless about human suffering.
“I can at least believe in looking’ remains a mantra: I can rarely fix what’s wrong with the world, but at the very least I can attend to the lives and scenes around me, the beauty and the suffering.”
This attending is implicit in the words of Karen Maezen Miller:
“The view that there is higher ground apart from the place we occupy is based entirely on ignorance. It perpetuates fear and, worse, it enlarges it. There is only one place. The one you’re in. You can never leave, but you can turn it inside out. Do you want to live in friendship or fear? Paradise or paranoia? We are each citizens of the place we make, so make it a better place.
At the grocery story, give your place in line to the person behind you.
Ask the checker how her day is going, and mean it.
On the way out, give your pocket money to the solicitor at the card table no matter what the cause.
Buy a cup of lemonade from the kids at the sidewalk stand. Tell them to keep the change.
Roll down your car window when you see the homeless man on the corner with the sign. Give him money. Have no concern over what he will do with it.
Smile at him. It will be the first smile he has seen in a long time.
Do not curse your neighbor’s tall grass, weeds, foul temperament, or house color. Given time, things change by themselves. Even your annoyance.
Thank the garbageman. Be patient with the postal worker.
Leave the empty parking space for someone else to take. They will feel lucky.
Buy cookies from the Girl Scout and a sack of oranges from the poor woman standing in the broiling heat of the intersection.
Talk to strangers about the weather.
Allow others to be themselves, with their own point of view. If you judge them, you are in error.
Do not let difference make a difference.
Do not despair over the futility of your impact or question the outcome.”
Many of us do the things on Miller’s list. I have too. But I’ve room to grow. My goal is to be more mindful of the process of being kind and therefore to become kinder: to step in another’s shoes instead of being critical, to be helpful despite being busy, to be more open by not pushing away the pain. Maybe the next snow day will feel lighter because of smiles I placed in the lives of others.
Miller, Karen Maezen. hand wash cold, care instructions for an ordinary life. MJF Books: New York, NY. 2010.