It snowed in Michigan yesterday, a winter storm like a rogue wave.
The day was drab and still, a March day in this place of pale people and late springs, until two o’clock when the snow started. In half of an hour, it covered the muddy spots in the brown grass and began to pile up on leafless tree limbs.
I stopped by the store for provisions on the way home from school— a tub of mint ice cream — before hunkering down to watch it snow. In the gloom of early evening, it came down wet, heavy, and relentless — a stream of slush from above. The arbor vitae in my yard are bent in half this morning under the weight. And a broken pine limb, which is the width of my leg, lies where it fell against the fence, a long green finger pointing upward in accusation at the tree that dropped it. The side roads are white quicksand.
They called off school today due to “dangerous road conditions.” Snow Day! A much needed blessing, as the teaching weeks get long in the run of days between winter and spring breaks. My sympathies to you if your work goes on despite the winter weather and despite the summer. Really, I don’t know how you do it.
When teachers get that happy early-morning phone call, we turn off the alarm. We pat the bed and the dog jumps up. Later, we have a third cup of coffee and spend a cozy morning with our dear ones. And, if the mood strikes, we sit down at the desk to write and then read a little while on the couch until a nap becomes a better idea.
When my kids were little, snow days meant sledding and snowball fights and watching Frozen, all of us snuggled under blankets and sipping mugs of instant cocoa. But those days are in the rearview. Childhoods, snow days, sand castles — how quickly they come and go.
Snow days should be super chill. What’s there to worry about? Nothing needs to be accomplished, nothing sorted, nothing too deeply pondered. But in this stupid human head of mine, no day is 100% carefree.
My snow day worry is so dumb, so far from the big worries that sit like uneasy anchors in our guts. Truth is, I’m embarrassed to write this next part. Because my worry isn’t, “Are my kids going to be okay?” Or about climate change. Or COVID. Or systemic racism. Or broken people, dripping with hate and fantasizing mass murder, who are, right now, buying a gun.
No, what worries me when there’s snow is that I have to get the sidewalk shoveled before somebody walks on it.
I live in the walking-est walking-around neighborhood you’re going to find. A steady stream of people and their pooches; young parents holding the hands of tottering kids; folks pushing dogs and babies in strollers; students hoofing it from the bus stop to their rentals. Plus, there’s Michael the mailman, who delivers the goods in every kind of weather.
If I don’t get the sidewalk shoveled before the walkers are out, someone might slip and fall. Worse, the sidewalk won’t be clean. It won’t look right.
So I actually don’t sleep in…not too late anyway. After I feed the dogs, I’m out there with my trusty shovel. I know it’s silly, but I can’t stop myself. None of my neighbors are out yet — not Dave with his short driveway and industrial strength snowblower and not Brian who scrapes his sidewalks clean with a fancy ergonomically-handled thingy. Nope, it’s just me and my worry brain out here slinging shovelfuls of slush.
Though, it’d be a lie to say that shoveling is only about my worries. I like the work. Sweating in the quiet cold snaps a broken piece of me me back into place so that, when I’m sipping coffee on the couch afterwards, there’s a moment of peace.
When I was young, my family loaded our Volkswagen Vanagon with gear and drove north from plain old Indiana to exotic western Michigan and set up camp. Summer along Lake Michigan and simple joys — pancakes on the camp stove griddle, quiet morning hikes to spy deer, afternoons playing hearts on a sticky vinyl table cloth, a ring of folding lawn chairs and sun-kissed faces around a fire, and a cloud of wood smoke, bug spray, and the smell of blackened marshmallows with the the waves rushing up the sand in the middle distance.
But my happiest summer vacation moments were on the beach where I played paddle ball with my dad, went for water’s edge walks to hunt for treasures with my mom, splashed in the windy waves with my sister, and floated dangerously far from shore in a mildewed surplus rubber raft with my little brother. I chomped on sandy grapes from the cooler, fed a swarm of seagulls bits of bread crusts, and got a terrific sunburn.
Also, I built fortresses.
Construction began with a seawall. I’d fill my red pail with dry sand and dump it in piles just at the top of the tide, far enough from the water so the waves made me work to keep my castle dry, but close enough to make the game exciting. I had a big imagination then; make-believe filled my days. I was a knight on my bicycle with a broomstick lance, a jungle explorer wandering a stretch of neighborhood woods, and Luke Skywalker with a stick for a lightsaber and a cardboard box as an X-wing fighter.
Hours passed on the beach as I built my fantasy worlds. A moat. A keep. Driftwood canons to repel invaders from across the sea. Sprinting for dry sand to plug the widening gaps in the seawall as the tide came in.
The water inevitably won. The waves washed everything that I built.
Walking barefoot along the stretch of beach they call the ‘Sunset Coast,’ I smile at the kids and their castles. Soon they’ll be gone, eroded into the lake and become teens for whom a day at the beach is fraught with adolescent social media posts.
Ahead of me, my youngest daughter, whose childhood is behind her now, walks with my mother. Little wind-blown waves crash against their ankles. Neither is tall. Both are beautiful. They stoop now and again to examine a glinting object and then hold it up for the other to see. They’re hunting for sea glass, jewels from the lake — pieces of long-ago discarded bottles whose sharp edges have been worn smooth by the sandy water — treasures of time.
I close my eyes. I listen to the waves rush up the sand and to the cries of the gulls. I remember being covered in sand (and not enough sunscreen) and abandoning my castles, and dashing into the water, sharp rocks poking my feet, and falling, laughing, into the waves.
They buried my grandmother two weeks ago. My dad, his two surviving brothers, and his sister put Grandma’s ashes into the ground beneath the granite headstone upon which her name and her birth date were engraved decades ago. There, she’ll lie, at the edge of a tiny Ohio town where the air smells of fields fertilized with manure in the springtime.
I wasn’t there for her burial, but I had done a grandson’s duty. At the viewing, I paid my respects at her casket. In the lobby of the funeral home my cousins, siblings, and I remembered the good times with Grandma and swapped stories. The next morning, I helped carry her casket into the church for her funeral mass and back out again to the waiting hearse.
And I choked up at the luncheon in the church basement — not on my shredded chicken sandwich and jello salad, the standard funeral luncheon menu in those parts — but when reading a poem that I’d written in her honor. It wasn’t that I was sad, really. While Grandma was a big part of my life when I was little, after adolescence we weren’t that close. And she’d lived for a hundred years and lived well. But I’m a crier, so I cried.
There I was, in front of stoic small-town Ohioans gathered to commemorate a long well-lived life, doing the thing where you read a sentence then pause, awkwardly, so awkwardly, with your throat choked closed by emotion, while people shift in their seats, made uneasy by your display. I didn’t stay for the burial. I had to get back home; I had to teach.
I didn’t get a straight answer about why Grandma chose to be cremated, about why we didn’t proceed to the cemetery after mass for an old-fashioned Christian burial like we’d done for my Uncle Dan last fall. What I did learn, however, is that if you take the ashes-to-ashes short cut in the crematorium at the funeral home, you don’t have to be buried six feet deep. They put Grandma’s ashes just three feet down.
But even at that depth, she’s gone and the world feels a little smaller now. Because gone too are the mornings at her house when she and I would sit on the cushions at the bay window saying good morning to the apple trees, to the birds, to the ponds, to the sun. Gone are her green cookies at Christmas. Gone is the way she sang my name, “An-deee.”
Gone into the earth.
In college in the summertime, I worked on a yard crew at a convent in Indiana. One of the buildings was a retirement facility for the sisters whose working days are over. Pushing a mower, I’d see the retirees in their habits, bent and ambling through a flower garden that I’d helped to plant or resting on the concrete bench at the grotto, the one I’d power washed the week before.
And, from time to time, from a respectful distance, I’d see the sisters laid to rest in the convent’s cemetery — in a hole I helped to dig, a six foot hole.
It was my job as the college kid on the crew to go down into the hole and square the corners with a spade while, above me, swallows flew in wheeling flight across a rectangle of blue sky, hunting bugs our lawn mowers scared skyward. My job finished, I climbed out and the funeral home truck backed up to the hole and lowered into place the concrete vault into which the dearly departed sister’s coffin would be laid to rest.
The concrete keeps the dirt away and the water out, for a while anyway. She’ll lie there for years as wrinkled and beautiful and godly as the day she died.
But the water always wins — it washes us away.
Has my life been anything other than a reel of scenes in the dirt, scenes by the water?
Scraping samples from the permafrost near Barrow, Alaska, and wondering about mercury in the sediment, hoping not to see a polar bear.
Falling in love with a girl during a geology course in Wyoming — fascinated by the streaks of summer blond in her hair, her hiking blisters, and her lovely shoulders — when she leaned back in her Crazy Creek chair and laughed during our lunch break at the sandstone outcrop.
Chasing our oldest daughter across a windy Washington state beach as she sprinted on child’s legs toward the surf bellowing, “Wahder, Wahder, Wahder!!!”
My dog, Fred, swimming a muddy North Carolina creek to fetch his sloppy tennis ball from a summer thicket of rhododendrons.
Joking with Joe Kirstein, my friend and colleague, about how we wished we could make middle school kids dig a hole and fill it back in when we were out of ideas on how to get our seventh graders to behave.
Being eleven and coming home caked with mud in ruined jeans after ‘stream hike day’ at summer camp.
And sitting by Lake Michigan, on one perfect day, with my toddler son and a warm breeze on my face and him with a little shovel having dug a little hole by the water. Him sitting in the hole splashing in his sandy puddle, his diaper swollen and sagging. And carrying him back to the rental house in my arms, his warm weight, my warm heart.
Outside, the sun is fighting its way through the thin gray sky in an attempted apology. The walks, where I scraped them clean, are wet but clear. The dogs, having played in the snow, are damp and asleep next to me on the couch. In the other room, my wife, also a teacher and also relishing this snow day, is with our youngest. They’re chilling and watching a Netflix show. I’m thinking about a mug of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. That’s about all I have planned for the afternoon.
But maybe this evening I’ll go a walk. In the quiet, in the dark, under the arc of Orion’s belt, when there’s nothing left to do, but to just be here. To crunch through the icy snow in my boots. To breath. To watch the cloud of my breath in the light of a street lamp dissipate into the cold air. To know well, very well indeed, what it means to live.
Then a beer — winter puts me in the mood for something malty — and basketball on the TV. We’ll check our phones and wonder about tomorrow’s weather. We’ll hope against hope for another snow day. It’s too much to hope for.
But what day isn’t?
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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