because I could not stop for snow

because I could not stop for snow - heirloom mothering

The first snow was romantic. It was also late, according to locals.

Better late than never! chirped everyone.

My neighbor says you’re a true New Englander when you complain both about the lack of snow and its presence. Snow had finally arrived, and we welcomed it for its otherness. Cozied up on the couch, we peered out from our warm cocoon. Those first snowflakes spurred enlightened (read: smug) conversations about how alive we felt.

Sure, it was more snow than usual—the mounds rising up in places like tents smushed too close together—but it was endearing. Besides, it would only be around a little while, we told ourselves. We posed for pictures, spiked our hot cocoa, and cracked jokes about the colossal size of the icicles.

But the snow didn’t leave. Like a free-spirit relative blowing through town, the snow is oblivious to our social code; it camps out on our yard and blocks our car and eats our fence and threatens its way into our home. The snow doesn’t ask us if we are ready, if we can handle a visitor for a month. It barges in and uses too much toilet paper and takes hour-long showers and tells us how we should really be making our own lasagna instead of buying Stouffer’s. It really isn’t very hard, the snow tells us.

*******

There’s a drip, drip inside my bathroom window. Ice dams, they tell me. I push it away, determined to stay on top, to skim the surface, impervious. I am a hollow reed, I accept the things I cannot change, I’m rubber and you’re glue. I’m happy, dammit, I whisper. Break out the sleds, I say, we’re out of here.

But still the snow doesn’t leave. And here I sit, with no river to skate away on.

People call, write, text. How are you? February isn’t the problem, I say. Ask me again in May, I joke. I do not want to bother them. I do not want to seem ungrateful. I know I am supposed to feel blessed, and I do, except when I don’t. When I cannot drum the gratitude I know I am supposed to feel, for being alive, for being warm, for being loved and for loving, that is my low point. I am sinking.

 *******

Winter came and it stayed. It wakes the monster that dwells in crevices. There isn’t room in here for both of us, winter tells the monster. The monster rubs its eyes and stretches and looks around, then steps out into the world, quietly at first.

I plead with the monster in moments of solitude. On my hands and knees mopping up the brown muck, I tell it to go away. I am fine, I grit. Upstairs setting traps for the army of mice that have invaded our home, I add a piece of peanut butter on stale bread. Down in the basement with laundry, working in the dim light of a single bulb, the egress windows blocked out by a mass of white, the whistle and whine of the gusts blowing so hard they rattle the old glass, I repeat between clenched teeth that everything is fine. Outside shoveling, wondering what the hell all this is, really, baffled at its heft, its sheer quantity, cursing our choice to live at the base of a hill with nowhere to put it, I try laughing it off, but no sound comes out.

Now I get why the locals honk their horns so often. If I had a horn in front of me right now, or better yet, a tiny punching bag, I would purse my lips and punch that sucker constantly until spring. I would lie against the horn and let all the world hear it wail.

There’s only so much of this I can take, I say to the snow, to the mice, to the laundry, to the mucky floor, to the monster, to no one in particular. I want the snow to say it doesn’t care, to fight back, to provoke me. Instead, it says nothing. It is not a witty companion. I would settle for a belligerent uncle, but it is not that either. It is a huge stranger passed out drunk on my front porch that I have to step over to get to my car; it is neither interesting nor useful. But still, it stays.

The monster grows louder. It is cold and calculated when it most needs to empathize, hurtful when it most needs to comfort, seeing and hearing when it most needs to ignore. The snow is carving a sorrowful well, which I know in an academic sense can be filled with joy at a future date. In the meantime, I bear witness to my own self-indulgent grief and corresponding self-loathing. I am most especially disgusted by my muted jealousy of the wellbeing of others who soar above me.

******

As a writer and an only child, I am a solitary brooder when I am in the grip of this monster. Thus, talking is tricky. My instinct is to put in my ear buds and drown out the noise, hoping to escape into another world of pen and paper. But I need to talk, my therapist tells me. “It is in that vulnerable place that a window of possibility opens,” she says.

I am not sure I believe her, but I sign up to read an essay out loud anyway, figuring my misery and terror of public speaking are similar feelings. Both evoke a stress response. I imagine my grief and fear battling each other for prime real estate in my brain. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the essay I choose to read is about the sorrow I feel for my grandmother’s sudden decline from Parkinson’s disease.

The Sunday morning of my reading, I bundle up to face the weather; it is snowing again. The lack of other cars on the highway provides a calm backdrop, a near post-Apocalyptic scene of seclusion. I am already feeling a bit better; facing my fear at least gives me something else to chew on besides worms.

On the drive, I turn over Dani Shapiro’s advice I read on Instagram: “Be curious… Curiosity and self-consciousness can’t occupy the same space.” I start thinking about what the producers will be like and what the person ahead of me will talk about. What will they be wearing? This advice is magical. It is actually working.

Into the interview I go, hopped up on curiosity, or maybe just on that bad Dunkin Donuts latte. I know before beginning that my essay won’t be accepted—it isn’t right for this event—but I am glad for the compassionate smiling faces ready to listen. A week later I get confirmation of my hunch; I won’t be reading my essay again.

******

Here is my truth. Reading out loud doesn’t make me feel completely better; swapping fear for sorrow isn’t a foolproof solution, it turns out. But curiosity is still as magical today at quieting my despair as it felt the first day. I think the reason curiosity helps is that it makes me focus on something other than my happiness or lack thereof. When I am curious, I relinquish control of the situation. Curiosity is my brain’s way of acknowledging the outcome is not in my hands.

It is the start of March, a symbolic moment of the coming of spring. Out my window, we are about to get more snow, a reminder that it is Mother Nature—not the calendar—who announces quitting time.

Will we break the Boston record for snow? Stay tuned. I am curious to see what will happen. And for today, that’s going to have to be enough.

because I could not stop for snow - heirloom mothering
God bless them for those grins.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Lindsey Mead and Aidan Donnelley Rowley for inspiring me to write about happiness (or the lack thereof), their final edition of #TheHereYear.

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7 thoughts on “because I could not stop for snow

  1. Oh, yes. I love this. I relate to every word. I’m a New Englander through and through, married to a Vermonter (who is even more hard core than a standard New Englander) and we are thoroughly, in general, unfazed by winter or snow. This year: a mess. We are both struggling with it and candidly I don’t feel like anyone who’s not IN Boston with me relates. Thank you for writing this. And my current fear? That we wind up 1″ short of the record. xox

  2. Thanks Lindsey. It makes me feel better to know native snow-lovers are even at the end of their rope, but I wish for your sake you could merrily march on unfazed. As my friend the winter-lover says, “Bring me my snow pants! I’m the line leader! *swish swish swish*.” Oh, and we should all be glad (or not, depending on point of view) I’m not in charge of those numbers because it would be tough not to fudge it at this point.

  3. Justine, I love this! The title and the sentiment. I’m not a New Englander, just an eastern Pennsylvanian, but I’m feeling rather full of snow myself.

    I’m sorry your essay wasn’t selected, but a brave thing to do regardless and especially in this weather. I’m also sorry about your grandma.

    Wonderful advice from Dani Shapiro ,which I will hang onto while reading my essay aloud this weekend.

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