Friday, February 05, 2010

The Snowpocalypse Cometh

This has been the winter to meditate on snow. Growing up in Vermont, most winters it was omnipresent--without it, we felt bereft, the landscape foreign, ground frozen and tangled in dried grass, the palette barely differentiated shades of gray and brown. I can remember the sound the snow tires made on bare pavement--loud and rumbling. When I was in high school, we had several winters with little snow: dry times, thaws, white receded like patchy hair on a balding man.

Snow was a practical necessity--a source of revenue for many, a way of life, a badge of honor. My mother driving me home after piano lessons, across the bridge that separated Williston and Essex Junction, the one across the power dam, the one that plunged deeply in both directions and, I think, from the Essex side, required a last-minute turn to make the bridge instead of the river. The bridge has since been replaced--raised and the descent smoother and easier. But I can remember driving across it, the effectiveness of the last plow diminished, the tires creaking through the snow and snow driving toward the windshield the way the starscape rushes toward you in movies about space.

All of this was perfectly ordinary. That my father would drive from Williston to Middlebury to pick me up from college for the weekend during the middle of a storm that dropped at least 18 inches. That we would take the backroads home because Route 7 would be too slippery with traffic and compressed ice. That all would be well until the midpoint, maybe south of Monkton, the edges of the roadbed faint indentations between the 12 or more inches piled on the roadside and the 6-8 on the road itself. That he would turn to me and say, well, at least we've got a downhill to accelerate to get up this hill--rearwheel drive will push us up! And it did, the old Cadillac shimmying a bit on the front end.

Accelerate slow and steady. Keep your speed even. Use low gear.

I hate the snow down here. Or, rather, I've hated it until this winter. As you see on the news, the slightest snowfall triggers panic and lunacy. Driving to get my kids this afternoon before the snow really began to stick, the Entitled Ones of Bethesda/Chevy Chase were driving in a frenzy out of proportion to the actual level of existing disaster--passing school buses with the stop sign out and red lights flashing, peeling through turns at top speed, cutting other drivers off. Although, in dry weather, I've even seen people cut off ambulances down here.

What I've hated most, though, is the feeling of isolation when it snows. The reason people in DC go mad at the prospect of icy white flakes is because local and state governments repeatedly tell us that all hope is lost, we will be alone, the power company cannot be expected to be held responsible for keeping the lights on, the plows cannot be expected to function or to find the time to plow our streets, the stores will be closed, the schools shuttered, the area will be shut down indefinitely, call us in the spring. Lord of the Flies is upon us.

And Robert, of course, might as well be Piggy. The helpless cannot be helped. Pepco cannot put us on an emergency restore power list because he is not on a ventilator. If it's freezing in my house, that's my problem. Our street is on the lowest priority level for power restore because the grid we're on serves fewer people than the other grids. The rescue squad can come if he develops hypothermia and transport him to a hospital. But not until he is on the verge of serious illness.

As I've said before, I'm all for self-reliance. If I weren't self-reliant, the difficulties Robert's disabilities create for all of us would have put us living in a shack down by the river a long time ago.

No one will admit it, but a lack of human compassion often masquerades as a directive for self-reliance. The Snowpocalypse is at hand! Every person for themselves.

I still find it ridiculous that I have to consider whether evacuating my home in advance of a 12-18 inch snow storm is the best thing for my disabled child. That that much pressure is exerted on us in addition to everything we already face. That much drama over snow.

We may get up to 2 feet of snow or more tonight. I've been a bit player in this production before. Bethesda gets 18 inches or more approximately every 2-3 years. School will be closed all next week, our neighborhood may not see a plow until late Sunday or even Monday. We're three and a half blocks from Wisconsin Ave., a major artery and 'snow emergency route.' It will be clear and well-plowed. There's a hotel about four blocks away. But I can't carry Robert through 2 feet of snow that far. The three of us, Roger, Edith and myself, might be able to hike out. And if we left our house before the storm, but forgot a piece of medical equipment, we'd never be able to get back into our neighborhood.

Everything is fine as long as we don't lose power. Yesterday, when the forecast increased the snowfall from about 12 or more inches to twice that, I actually sat down and tried to figure out how we would survive in our house without power if it came to that. How would we stay warm? What would we eat? What would we do if we had to spend two days in a house that might be in the 40s inside?

I decided to try to stay--packing to take Robert from one place to the next requires so much equipment, so many supplies. And yet I worried about rolling the dice on Pepco. I bought a new, high power battery-operated lantern. I bought hand, foot, and body warmers designed for outdoor activities. Just enough stuff to buy us an afternoon or more to figure out what to do, whether enough people with four-wheel drive might have criss-crossed the neighborhood so we could, painfully, get our car out three and a half blocks.

I finally thought about buying a big plastic sled for Robert, maybe to transport him if we had to, but it was too late. The stores were already sold out.

And yet. The snow this winter has been a relief, an odd blessing. A transformation of one state to another, or a reminder that transformation is possible. The unexpected become the ordinary.

Change. I could draw a connection to politics--to the weary sense that everything will stay the same, tangled grass over frozen, barren ground--that there will never be progress. And yet holding out hope that there will be, that the unexpected will become the ordinary. My relationship with my country feels a little troubled right now--a little too much self-reliant talk directed at me, talk I suspect is nothing but lack of compassion dressed up in sheep's clothing.

Snow, that consequence of winter which always seems a surprise, each and every time, is a great equalizer. You can fight against it or stand still. But it falls, most often so calmly that its accumulating power is always underestimated, and it falls steadily and with purpose. And it makes us stop and think, because enough of it will stop traffic. Will bring the nation's capital to its knees.

Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. But don't forget the power of snow.

The end of Joyce's "The Dead" has political connotations: "Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."


Leightongirl said...

Oh dear, I just wish you warmth, sweet warmth.

Elizabeth said...

I wish you warmth as well. And you've quoted from one of my most favorite of all literary passages. I think I posted it on my own blog a bit ago --

Maggie May said...

i have a feeling ongoing snow would have the same effect on me. have you seen the movie ' The Ice Storm '?

NightSwimmer said...

Thank-you for your blog. It is so strong. Good to "meet" you. We've got lots of snow here in Indiana too.