Monday, February 9, 2015

Snow Days!

(Taken February 9, 2013, but it looks a lot like this today too)

There is a lot of snow around my house. I will hold off, for now, in singing its praises, because I understand that for many people, these storms are nothing but a giant pain in the ass, lower back, frostbite, and morale departments.

Everyone, it seems, has some complaint about the snow. The most valid, I think, are related not to the sudden emergency of a snowstorm—everyone seems able to rise to the occasion of travel bans and parking regulations and necessary shoveling with remarkably sweet cranky-Yankee stoicism—but to the problems of living with the longer term effects of big snows.

It is hard to get around on snowy roads, hard for cars and buses and bicycles and pedestrians alike. Watching the subways and buses of the MBTA in Boston cave under so much snow is deeply worrying. Ditto seeing commuter car traffic slow to a crawl and school buses stymied in their routes. Everything slows down, and while I generally relax into and enjoy the extra time and largely readjust my life to accommodate the weather, I am both rare in the choice and lucky in the ability to do so.

The absurd quantity of snow and the lack of places to store it all is a simple tangible reality, and it dramatically changes the board we’re playing Life on. Why, then, are so many people clinging to the same route and routine they would in July or April, and expect nothing to have changed? Some of the most basic facts of our environment and habitat have altered—enormously, immediately, and drastically—in the last three weeks.

A common sensible reaction, I think, would be to alter our actions and habits in response. As a culture, we have enormously and irrevocably altered the climate, but we still, now or ever, cannot control weather. Continuing to commute and work and live as if the weather doesn’t—cannot—touch us is foolish. Nature always wins.

I have a deep respect for and fascination with large natural forces. I like to be out in storms, in mountains, beside the ocean, anywhere I can be reminded that I am small and powerless, and ought to do more and better to live humbly in the face of all that is greater than myself. I find it exhilarating, and comforting.

With that in mind, I relish the lack of control that comes with a big snowstorm. The snowdays, the travel-bans, the seeming constant shoveling of snowbanks taller than myself, all of this is a good reminder that I am not, and cannot reasonably be expected to be, in control. It’s like body surfing on the biggest waves—the same excitement, the same sense of not knowing when your feet will next touch. It is a little frightening, of course, but better to just relax and enjoy the ride than fight the tide. There is a freedom in being beyond of your own control.

Where the sweetness of a storm breaks down is the belief that has ossified into reality that, despite any and all environmental factors, the economy must continue unbroken. This winter, for the first time in my almost thirty-three years, I have a job that still pays me if work is canceled for “inclement weather.” If this were not the case, I would have stomach-churning anxiety about the number of snowdays—going unpaid for even a day rattles a thin budget in the worst, most bullying and powerless way possible. I know that fact in a way, like survivors of the 1930s, that I will never forget. I think about this sick feeling of worry and fear while seeing reports of MBTA commuters being stuck on trains, hearing about friends who spend an hour driving two miles through the city, talking to the other folks waiting for a bus in the snowstorms.

The only people who are out are those who feel that they have to be there. And no one, except for those who clear our roads and keep the rest of us safe, truly needs to be out. Will the world survive if Dunkin Donuts don’t operate for a few days? If corporations and businesses and firms send everyone home? For the most part, we would be absolutely fine if these hours were spent not at work or in transit, but home and among the people we love and labor for in the first place. Further, that so many people now are asked to work from home is a more subtle form of economic aggression. It is an invasion of privacy, a forced erasure of the thin but necessary barrier between personal and public. To me, if a person chooses to work from home, that’s fine. But, when an office demands that a person work from home, that is the Economy marching into one’s sanctuary, pulling the Eminent Domain card and planting its flag. It is abominably rude.

There has been talk about how these storms show how close our infrastructure is to collapsing due to weather events. With the climate ever changing and ever more erratic, I think this is a good warning to heed and act on the lessons of. We are, again, very good in emergencies—the statewide travel bans are like the snowstorms themselves in terms of the beautiful ability to be taken out of control. Where we flail is in dealing with chronic troubles. The storms themselves are not the problem. It is the clean up, recovery, and learning to be flexibly prepared. Climate change, for example, is a one time crisis, but a chronic challenge.

To me, what I see as truly both hastening climate change and breaking the infrastructure is the economy that demands these dangerous patterns of obsessive work and consumption. There are places for snow and time to move it and melt it, if we could alter our habits and expectations, if we could slow down without financial ruin and personal anxiety, if we could learn flexibility, humility, and patience.

Alongside repairing trains and buses, we must fix our economy so that people do not have to risk life and limb to keep a roof over their heads, food on their tables, and respect in their workplaces.  Our current system is cruel, bullying people into dangerous situations and invading their homes. And we are, too often, hamstrung and terrified by finances or so stuck in this rut of obeying the economy and job market at all costs that we forget how to respond with anything other than grumbling compliance.

When it storms and our geographies shrink, and we’re all required by nature to chuck out the to-do lists and day planners, I find it becomes clearer what we do and do not need to survive and be happy. That, I believe, is at the heart of the infrastructure that must be repaired. There are other ways if we will make them. The work of making a new way is, largely, like shoveling out your driveway. And, usually, a neighbor will help, or at least there is the camaraderie of shoveling together.

I want these changes now and sooner, but if it takes a few more beautiful snowstorms until we learn to humbly shift our priorities and work together on different ways of being in the world, I’ll also be delighted.

I’m heading out to shovel now—anyone need a hand digging out?

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