Newton


Something green and growing

Temperatures stayed above freezing for much of last week, so the snow pack is gradually shrinking, with patches of bare ground appearing on the edges. We saw these brave perennials starting to sprout from a sheltered spot alongside a building in Waltham yesterday…but in our yard here in Newton, the snow is still knee-deep, with an additional inch or two of fresh snow (enough for Boston to break its record for the snowiest season on record) falling last night.

Artificial flowers in snow bank

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Since it will be weeks, at least, until most of us see tulips or daffodils blooming in our still-buried gardens, some folks are taking matters in their own hands, sticking cut or even artificial flowers in the snow banks in front of their houses: a welcome spot of color. When you can’t enjoy the real thing, a reasonable facsimile will have to do.

Cut daffodils in snow bank

Out of the snowpack

Inch by inch, we’re reclaiming our yard from winter’s occupation. Yesterday a desk-sized slab of ice slid off our roof, taking part of the gutter with it; the day before that, an avalanche of roof-snow tore a cable from its mooring on the side of our house. Considering the damage many of our neighbors and colleagues have suffered–collapsed drywall ceilings, peeling paint, and warped kitchen cabinets, all from roof leaks caused by ice dams–J and I have gotten off easy, with only a bit of indoor dripping and seeping.

Overhang

Yesterday J and I walked to lunch, and shoveled sidewalks were bare…but those sidewalks that hadn’t been shoveled were treacherous, with alternating patches of ankle-twisting snowdrifts and slippery-as-sin ice patches slicked with snow melt. The most reliable place for pedestrians to walk is still (unfortunately) the street, turning a simple lunchtime walk into a game of chicken with passing motorists.

In the afternoon, I drove to Lexington to stock up on office supplies, and the town center was well-shoveled, with wide, clear sidewalks. It was sunny and mild, with temperatures in the mid-50s, and anyone who didn’t need to be inside was outside, walking. After so many weeks of snowstorms and cabin fever, it felt like an unheard luxury simply to walk outside, reclaiming the cleared sidewalks as our own.

The top photo shows our formerly-buried patio table and chairs emerging from the melting snow, and the second is the last photo I took of the overhanging roof-glacier that hung over our back door before it fell.

Buried shopping cart

The forecast calls for daytime highs in the 40s all this week, which means we’re beginning to see buried things surfacing out of the snow. It will be weeks before we see our lawn, but the top of our backyard birdbath has emerged, and in a nearby parking lot I saw the edge of a shopping cart peeking out of a head-high snow pile: the last place, presumably, a snowplow had pushed it.

Plowed pallet emerges from snowbanks

People often talk about how pretty snow is, and that’s true when it’s fresh-fallen and white. These days, however, the salt-blanched roads are lined with exhaust-blackened snowdrifts that have hardened and eroded into irregularly jagged shapes, more like sedimentary stone than anything akin to water. Like swords from a stone, all manner of random things are surfacing from beneath the snow: plow-battered pallets, smashed trash cans, and broken and uprooted park benches.

Stone wall emerges from melting snow

Spring is coming, the warmer temperatures and lengthening days suggest…but first we have to weather an awkward adolescence where the snow is ugly and ice-bottomed puddles are more treacherous than ice or snow alone. On Saturday, I ventured to Home Depot in search of ice melt, and everyone else in the store seemed to have the same idea, stockpiling what we hope is our last stash of the stuff. On the drive home, there was a mild traffic jam as a queue of cars at a popular car-wash snaked into the street: as reliable a sign of spring as any other.

Staircase mural

Last week, I went to City Hall to drop off a red plastic container of used hypodermic needles. One of our cats, Snowflake, was recently diagnosed with diabetes, so since January we’ve been giving him twice-daily insulin injections. Used syringes (or “medical sharps,” as they’re officially known) are a health hazard and can’t be tossed in the trash, but the local Health Department accepts puncture-proof containers of used needles for safe disposal.

USS Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere

It took a lot of wandering inside City Hall to find the Health Department: the building is literally a bureaucratic maze. Newton’s City Hall also doubles as a War Memorial, so while I was lost and wandering, I had ample opportunity to admire the dioramas in the hallways, each depicting in miniature a significant scene from American military history.

Pickett's Charge

Dioramas are like windows into another time or place, depicting a particular moment frozen in time, but they are also a kind of box, cleanly containing a discreet moment that exists separate and apart from the present. Viewing miniature models of soldiers dying on the battlefields of Gettysburg or France, for instance, I can imagine what it was like to be there…but I’m not there. The pane of glass between me and a diorama scene safely contains the story it depicts, so I can peer into the box of another’s pain without having to touch it.

Somewhere in France

Once I found the Health Department, I was surprised I didn’t have to fill out any paperwork or show identification to prove I’m a resident. Instead, when I announced I had medical sharps to dispose, a man silently rose from his desk and barely made eye contact as he solemnly walked me down the hall to a locked closet where a large, deep box—large enough to curl up in—was filled to almost-overflowing with red biohazard canisters and used detergent bottles, each filled with puncture-points of pain.

Valley Forge

After adding my contribution to the box, I got to wondering about its contents. The box, like a diorama, was both a window and a container. As a container, it safely held sharp, potentially infectious things that need to be handled (and disposed of) with care. But as a window, the box offered a glimpse into the pain of my anonymous neighbors. Behind each needle-prick lies a story of suffering: patients and caretakers, sickness or addiction, pain and relief. Maybe this is why the man with the closet key averted his eyes, in part to preserve my privacy (needles freely accepted: no questions asked) but also to protect the sanctity of an unshared story.

The diorama of daily life contains so much suffering, a jaw-dropping accumulation of countless pricks and jabs. Who among us has the courage to look it in the eye?

White-breasted nuthatch

Yesterday there was a white-breasted nuthatch perched in one of our backyard trees, motionless and fluffed against the cold. I was unloading bags of ice melt I’d bought in advance of our latest storm, and the nuthatch was clearly watching me: not moving, just softly tooting as if talking to himself.

Nuthatch closeup

I got my camera out of my purse to take a picture, and the nuthatch didn’t move. I took a few zoomed-in pictures, and the nuthatch didn’t move, so I stepped in closer and took more photos–and still, the nuthatch didn’t move. I eventually returned to unpacking the car, and the nuthatch eventually flew away, off to do his birdy business. But for a few expectant moments, that nuthatch and I shared a face-to-face encounter: Hello, whatcha doing?

Buried table

Remember that photo of our patio table and chairs I posted in January, after winter storm Juno dumped a foot and a half of snow in our backyard? As of this afternoon, that table had been completely covered in snow from winter storm Marcus, and more has fallen (and continues to fall) since then.

Path to back door

Both yesterday and today, J spent a few hours in the afternoon raking snow from the roof and snow-blowing the sidewalks and driveway, and I shoveled the areas the snow-blower can’t reach, like the front and rear entryways as well as the gate to our backyard dog pen. Both yesterday and today, I brushed about a half foot of snow off my car even though we have nowhere to go: J and I stayed close to home yesterday and today, and tomorrow I have another snow day from teaching.

We’ll have to do it all over again tomorrow, after the snow has finally stopped falling, and after the plows have made their final pass down our street, leaving a tall wall of white at the base of our driveway. We’ll have to roof-rake, snow-blow, and shovel again tomorrow, but at least for one brief moment this afternoon, J and I felt like we’d made a (temporary) dent in the ever-accumulating snow piles.

Me in snow

That’s me standing on the sidewalk J dutifully cleared this afternoon, three weeks’ worth of storms leaving us with waist-deep drifts in our backyard…and we’ve gotten even more snow since then.

Snowy backyard

Last night the Patriots won the Super Bowl, and today the sky is falling as snow: another day in New England. After the snow tapers, we’ll dig out our sidewalks, driveways, and cars, and tomorrow, the Patriots will parade through downtown Boston, victorious. These two things—digging out from a foot of snow and celebrating sports championships—are part of what it means to live in New England.

Snowed in

The rallying cry for the Patriots this year has been “Do your job,” a concise summary of Bill Belichick’s no-nonsense coaching philosophy. The motto “Do your job” seems particularly apt here in the Boston suburbs right now as we start cleaning up after another whopper of a storm. There’s nothing glamorous about snow shoveling, roof raking, or other winter chores: I’m guessing most folks would happily live their lives without ever once having to dig out a snow-buried car. But here in New England, doing your job means digging out your car, sidewalk, and driveway several times a year, every year.

Long icicle

This morning I woke before my alarm, checked my phone, and saw that Curry College had cancelled classes, so J and I slept an extra hour. But even on a snow day, we couldn’t sleep too late, as there are dogs to be taken out and in, dishes to wash, litterboxes to clean, cats to feed, and a diabetic cat to inject with insulin. “Do your job,” I think every morning when my feet hit the floor and I begin a routine of daily chores that’s become automatic, pulling on a faded Patriots hoodie whose cuffs are frayed from housework. Bill Belichick is famous for wearing a slouchy hoodie, the sleeves cut off without any eye to fashion. But why roll up your sleeves when you can simply do without them?

Inside looking out

“Do your job,” I thought this morning as I turned on my laptop to post an online equivalent of the work my students would have done in class today: snow may come and go, but the work of teaching and learning always remains. Regardless of the weather, the dogs still need to go out, the cats still need to be fed, and the blank page still waits to be written. In my Zen school, we talk about inside jobs and outside jobs. Your outside job is what you do for a living, whether you’re a football coach, college writing instructor, or housewife. Your outside job can change—you can switch careers, take a day off, or enjoy a snow day—but the inside work of keeping a clear mind always remains.

There used to be a sidewalk there

Just as “Boston Strong” was the perfect rallying cry for the Red Sox’ 2013 World Series run, “Do your job” is a perfect fit with New England sensibilities. New Englanders are renowned for their reserve, and Belichick’s reticent on-camera persona matches the local temperament. Why talk about your job when you can simply do it, regardless of what it is? If you have breath enough for chatter, you’re probably not working hard enough. In winter, after all, the snow piles as deep as the nights are long, so there’s little time to waste.

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