“The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside…” –Queen Elsa, Frozen
[Rhetorical Question Alert!] You know what kind of post this is going to be?
An historic, record-breaking amount of snow fell on Boston in the last 10 days (and other places), and this event has primarily highlighted for me how most historical events are not important, really. They don’t do anything to us…they don’t change things in any substantial way. Primarily what they do is expose the things that have always been true…even things that were previously well-hidden. 1 Week or 1 Day after the epic snowfall in Boston (depending on where you’re measuring from), I am noticing things entering into common conversation that are predicated upon the amount of snow we have seen, but are speaking to deeper truths about our society that, in the absence of devastating snow storms, are never spoken of. It’s as though the snow has served as a truth-serum for our tight-lipped society. You will tell me what I want to know…your secrets will be known.
Here are 5 Examples:
5) We Have No Idea What is Important
At the beginning of last week, I had 6 days in a row FILLED with appointments. I had meetings of all different sizes and stripes, places I was expected to be for various reasons, enough scheduled events to occupy all of my 120-ish waking hours from Monday-Sunday. I’m not exaggerating, it was going to be an astonishingly busy week. By noon a week ago Monday morning–just 12 hours after the worst of the storm predictions for Tuesday–my entire week was cancelled. Let’s keep in mind, the storm was always predicted to be at its worst from Monday night to Tuesday evening (which ended up being true), but people were canceling Wednesday things in case recovery took awhile (probably a good idea…ended up being possibly mostly true) , and that lead directly to both Thursday and Friday stuff getting postponed “just in case.” What is most revealing, however, is how people have behaved in the wake of the SECOND snow storm, almost a week after the first. Things that were postponed last week have been put off for another week. Some things that were put off for a week after the first storm were NOT called off after the second (which makes sense from a “snow FALL” perspective, but makes no sense whatsoever from a “LOOK HOW MUCH SNOW IS ON THE GROUND!!! WE CAN’T GET RID OF ALL THIS!!” perspective). Some things that were postponed after the first snow storm, which will not be affected at all by the second snow storm have been postponed AGAIN! There are also a few things I’m aware of that were very important last week, but didn’t happen…and now no one cares about rescheduling them.
We hear all the time, “People are creatures of habit,” but I don’t think we actually appreciate that this speaks to, not our biology, as much as our values. We value habit to the point of ignoring science and common sense. All things being equal, what you want to happen more than anything else tomorrow morning is…whatever you expect to happen tomorrow morning. If someone showed up at your door tomorrow morning and offered you a pre-paid vacation to your most dreamed of destination with no consequences for your normal life…there would be at least some part of you that would think, “This is kind of a hassle. Who do these people think they are just showing up unannounced like this?” And that addiction to routine is making itself abundantly noticeable in the wake of these snow storms. There seems to be very little agreement about what is worth braving the elements for and what isn’t (Note: So far the only thing I’ve been able to note is that people would probably show up to cheer for the New England Patriots’ victory parade despite any weather or obstacle). Yesterday didn’t bring as much snow as last week, but the conditions outside were arguably WORSE than they were a week ago, AND no one was prepared for how much snow we actually got yesterday, it defied all predictions. Last week Boston Mayor Marty Walsh made it illegal to drive on the roads during the snow storm, so everyone stayed home. Yesterday, no such driving ban was declared, which apparently allowed people to think the following sentence, “I know an absurd amount of snow is falling from the sky, and it looks really dangerous and crazy, but…it’s not illegal to drive. So…I guess I will go have a Monday.” We value our routines even when the sky is quite literally falling and amassing giant snow banks in the middle of city streets. And because we value our habits so highly, we lack the ability to logically triage our scheduled commitments. It leaves us in a flurry of questions, “What should be cancelled? What should be postponed? When is it acceptable to skip work and when should I break my neck trying to get there on time? You know that thing I signed up for that I didn’t think was really important, well it’s been rescheduled three times now…should that make me more or less likely to attend? Because I’ve got something else that night, so I have to skip something…but I have no idea which it should be.”
That’s ok. No one else does either.
There are currently a couple rows of cars on my street that are fully covered in snow. At least…I think they’re snow-covered cars. It’s possible God was trying to add some moguls to a ski slope and missed.
From what I can gather–not being a car owner myself–there seem to be two primary strategies for dealing with snow burying your vehicle. 1) Shovel well, shovel often. I have seen people go out during the storms, every few hours, to keep up with the snow as it fell. These are the folks who have no problem getting their cars out the next day and heading off to work. Although some people choose option 2) abandoning their car until summer.
You see this play out on sidewalks as well: folks who shoveled regularly throughout the storm have nice clean walk ways, you would never know it snowed there just two days ago. Other folks have drive ways and side walks that look like a Chuck E. Cheese Ball Pit (but with snow). This is less common than the car thing, because people will get fined for not properly shoveling their walk. But as a pedestrian, I can report that there are plenty of spots that need pretty massive work. Because if you don’t prepare properly, if you don’t practice good shoveling as the snow falls, then you can’t be a good shoveler.
This played out in grocery stores as well. Bread disappeared from grocery stores in the hours before the big storm last week. The produce section of the store was barely touched. A couple people stood in line with a couple bottles of wine or a six pack of beer. Others….several handles of hard alcohol. I don’t know how long they thought the storm would last, or how many Civil War-era kind of surgeries they were going to be performing…but I hope they made it out ok. How you prepare is equal to your identity. Marathon runners don’t run marathons every single day, but they do run more days than not. Theologians or Ministers aren’t necessarily more devout or more full of faith than civilians, but they immerse themselves in God-related thought and speech on a semi-constant basis. I’m told great chefs are simply normal people who cook a lot.
Snow storms make visible things that are normally un-observable: work ethic, procrastination, or…problems relating to consuming/hoarding bread. It doesn’t change who we are, it just covers us in snow until our true identities are revealed.
3) Often, Others Have Cleared a Path For You
It’s not all bad stuff, though. The truth is we are capable of great things too. I’ve never met more strangers in the Boston area than I have just before and just after a storm. Especially after. When the roads are unusable and everyone has to dig out from under snow before things can go back to normal…everyone (for the most part) lends a hand and helps one another out. One of the joys of the last few days has been how quiet it is. Even while traffic is backed up and aggravating because of the narrow roads and snow banks…I have never heard so few car horns. There’s a shared respect for the sheer weight of this stuff that fell from the sky, and a common concern for all who have been weighed down by it. It’s quite lovely.
Yesterday morning I became immediately aware of something that I have taken for granted almost every day of my life. As I came upon a street that I normally walk down without any problem whatsoever, I found 4-5 feet of snow making the walk impassable. So rather than trudge through snow up to my waist, or walk on the actual winding and scary looking street, I took a left and headed for the main road. That’s where I found a walk way that had not been shoveled as much as…trampled into a path. Countless sets of foot prints marked the slick and mushy way forward…trace evidence of people who had travelled that route before me…making my journey easier. Sometimes we have the burden, and the blessing, of walking somewhere first…becoming early adopters of a particular path, making the way smooth for those who might follow. It’s an incredible gift to give…turning impenetrable snow banks into safe and easy passages.
I never really got into the Footsteps poem. You know the one, “There were two sets of footprints throughout my life, and one set disappeared during my hardest times, and I asked Jesus why he abandoned me and he says, No I was carrying you.” I never really got it. As a lifelong Christian and an ordained minister, I can’t say that I’ve ever been able to feel Jesus lifting me up…even in retrospect. But then, sandy beaches have never really been my thing either, so maybe that’s an image that is meant for someone else. In the Post-Snowpocalypse sense, however, that poem takes on new meaning for me. Walking in the footsteps of another can ease your journey, and lighten your step. It can decrease the chance of taking a fall. It gives you the assurance that someone–even if it was a stranger–travelled this way safely before you.
2) Boredom No Long Exists in America…Exhaustion Does
When I was a kid, my mom would say to me, “You are not hungry, you are just bored.” And she was always right. I was well fed as a child, and snacks were plentiful, so I was never hungry, I was seriously just sitting around the house with nothing to do and thought to myself, “If I could only EAT something!” And in actuality, I don’t think I ever really even felt hungry…it was coded language. I knew for a fact I couldn’t just come out and say, “Mom, I’m bored.” Because my mother had a very specific response to that declaration. Whenever I dared utter those words, she would respond back with, “If you’re bored, I have a lot of chores that need to be done. We can put you to work.” I was a kid who loved to argue, but that was logic that even I dared not attempt to argue away. Because I knew she was right. She was raising me, my sister, her 100+ students, their parents, and also cooking, cleaning, and dozens of other activities. I knew there was no excuse to be bored…I knew there were plenty of things I could be doing to help out and I actually chose doing nothing and feeling bored over helping my mother.
Flash forward 20-some years and boredom is no longer a thing. I have had to physically go to my place of business on only 4 of the last 12 days. How did I spend the other 2/3 of my time? I don’t know…but I’m exhausted. Truth be told, I still did a lot of work, even on days that I was forced to stay at home. There were emails, sermons, Sunday School plans, questionnaires, letters, all manner of things that needed writing and researching. And also chores that I never normally have the time to do…like laundry. Then there was cooking, paying bills, phone calls, cleaning…and occasionally I would manage to set all these things aside and watch a movie with my girlfriend, or play a board game…and then RIGHT BACK to all the other stuff. The known world coming to a stand-still was not an opportunity to retreat, reset, reconnect, or any other number of life-giving re words…it was a desperate time to catch up on all the things I normally neglect and fall behind on. Thanks to technology…weather doesn’t really slow the world’s expectations down all that much. And it diminishes down our own expectations for ourselves even less. There is always something we can be doing, and we live in a society that values us according to how busy we are. Which means that we manage to exhaust and deplete ourselves even on days that we are restricted to our homes by Mayoral Declaration.
1) Our Way of Life is Not Just Unsustainable…It’s Actually Wholly Dependent On Very Specific Circumstances
Yesterday I spent 3 hours going 4.6 miles. I’m not exaggerating. Google it: Boston traffic + February 3 + Nightmare. I was there. Oddly, there’s something more maddening than being stuck in that kind of traffic for that amount of time…and that’s listening to radio news reports ABOUT the traffic you’re sitting in…the entire
time. From the combination of radio and my own observations here’s what we know: The amount of snow that fell over the last 10 days accumulated in the narrow streets of Downtown Boston in ways that made the streets even more narrow than usual. The very few 2 lane streets were diminished to 1 lane, one lane streets were covered in thick slush that had everyone moving at a snail’s pace. But lest we forget, it was also a snow day, so there were a bunch of pedestrians roaming around as well, darting in front of traffic and triggering red lights at crosswalks every few seconds. Things weren’t much better on public transportation. Buses were, obviously, caught directly in traffic or suffering from the ripple effect of Downtown gridlock. Trains were having all manner of trouble, and as one impassioned public servant said on a particular radio interview, the problem was not the snow or even the cold..the problem was that most of the equipment being used is at least 50 years old, if not older. She and others have been advocating for years that we need to invest in better infrastructure and new train cars, but no one has paid her words of warning any heed.
So here’s the thing…despite what I said before about how much we love our routines…if traffic conditions like yesterday became the standard and drivers knew it would always take upwards of 4 hours to get through downtown Boston…how long do you think it would take them to stop driving down there? And if public transportation were an equally absurd option…how long do you think it would take before people started re-organizing their lives around more convenient options? In “under developed” nations, it is not uncommon for a trip into the city for groceries or medical attention to take several hours. But we don’t do that in America. We do faster, more convenient.
But plows are working around the clock (as much as they can during insane day traffic), public servants are shoveling walk ways, dump trucks are hauling tons of snow out of the city (“To dump it in the ocean?!” asked one excited snow-o-phile from Arizona. “Possibly?” responded a minister who knows nothing about anything.), and even as I write this on the morning of Post-Snowpocalypse Day 2…it’s not better. Not much. There’s just too much snow. And our streets are narrow and old, not built for automobiles AT ALL, and certainly not equipped to magically make more room to accommodate tons of snow AND tens of thousands of drivers. And we know two things for certain: 1) Bizarre and unpredictable weather patterns will become more of the norm in coming years (Google it: Climate Change + Actual Thing? + Science), and 2) we have not invested enough money or ingenuity into our infrastructure in order to be prepared for the unpredictable. On a normal day, under ideal conditions, Boston is an incredible city that allows millions of people to flow in and out of it without incident, providing services for tourists, poor folk, and business executives in equal measure. 3 feet of snow in 10 days turns it into a parking lot. “Sustainability” is everyone’s favorite buzzword right now. The last week has me convinced that our current lifestyle is, in many ways, a few degrees south of “sustainable,” hovering closer to, “Doing Alright Under Ideal Circumstances.”
9/11 didn’t make us a more xenophobic or intolerant nation…it revealed the prejudices that were always just lying underneath the surface. The internet didn’t make us more petty, mean, or isolated…it just made our private thoughts and feelings public. Disasters of any kind–no matter how historic–don’t change things in substantial ways…but they clarify the best and worst of who we have been this entire time.