In a humdrum


Propane tank-filling day. #signsofspring #almostgrillingseason

Today I went to the hardware store to fill two propane tanks: an annual ritual that marks the start of spring and the almost-advent of grilling season. Every year, I park my car by the big propane tank at the corner of the lot, go inside to pay, and then return to the big tank, where a man wearing a hat, coat, and gloves fills each of my smaller tanks in turn.

Almost forsythia

Tonight when I finally sat down to meditate, I felt like I’d plugged myself into a power source: a chance to refill and recharge. We’re entering the busy part of the semester, and on any given day, I have to juggle a half dozen different obligations: pets to feed and errands to run, student emails to answer, classes to prepare, and papers to grade. On any given day, there are more to-do’s on my list than there are hours to do them.

Leafing

And yet, all it takes for me to feel grounded and centered is the simple act of stopping: right here, right now, I make a conscious effort to do just one thing as I follow my breath going in and out, in and out. When you have a hundred and one things to do, doing just one thing sounds like an indulgent luxury, but it’s just as practical as stopping by the hardware store for propane. One’s inner stores of energy are easily depleted, but the Big Tank where you can refill is always close at hand.

Raindrops on holly

Today is what the Irish call a soft day: gray and misty, with gauzy bands of drizzle wafting beneath an overcast sky. There is no need for umbrellas on soft days: a windbreaker and ball cap are all you need, along with an antsy dog who demands walking in all weather.

Binary

On soft days, Toivo and I have the streets, sidewalks, and aqueduct trail almost to ourselves. On our way to the place of pines this morning, we saw a distant border collie herding her owner toward the dog park; on the way back, we saw a woman walking a white Pomeranian that looked like a powder puff on a leash. Overhead, fish crows called and finches twittered, and underfoot, the needle-strewn trail was damp and spongy, as soft as fog.

They say that April showers bring May flowers, a saying that suggests spring rain is tolerable only if you focus on future beauty. But on a day like today, April showers are their own reward. After months of snow, mere rain cannot daunt us. After months of snow, any precipitation you don’t have to shovel is warmly welcomed.

Snowdrops in snow

This morning when I walked Toivo to the place of pines and back, the sky was full of snowflakes. April snow never lasts; even the thin layer of slush that accumulated on lawns, car windshields, and in the shade was melted by afternoon. April snow is merely a reminder that winter will leave in its own good time: on its schedule, not yours.

Toppled

April snow is decorative: a filmy veil draped across an otherwise drab scene. The snowstorms we had in March were heavy enough to wreak havoc: everywhere the dog and I walk, we see toppled trees, downed limbs, and piles of sawdust that indicate not just storm damage, but storm cleanup. Those March storms dropped snow that shaped the landscape, flattening trees and downing power lines. April snow, on the other hand, is wispy and insubstantial: something that falls and vanishes soon after contact like the ghost of a ghost.

April snow is like the snow of childhood: a nostalgic thing that is lovely to look upon but requires no sacrifice. April snow melts before we have a chance to grow sick of it, a remembered thing even before it is gone.

A single scilla

One odd benefit of having four March nor’easters in a row is the series of springs we’ve experienced in between storms. Even though these past few weeks haven’t been warm, the combined effect of longer days and a more direct angle of sunlight means March snow melts quickly. Even as we wait for our fourth snowstorm, a significant portion of previous snow has already melted, temporarily revealing bare patches of earth.

Resilient

Despite the two feet of snow we received last week, our day lilies are sprouting, and both snowdrops and scilla are blooming if you know where to look. Spring perennials aren’t deterred by snow: as soon as sunlight hits bare ground, they sprout, bloom, and ultimately outlast even the heaviest snowfalls.

Snowdrops in snow

On bright days, the snow sublimes into thin air, and even on gray days, the snow shrinks from below, the soil absorbing and then slowly emitting the warmth from daytime sunlight. Winter storm Toby can rage and spew all he wants, but the simple fact remains: spring snow never lasts for long, and ultimately both spring and summer prevail.

Last storm's damage, this storm's snow

Today we’re weathering our third nor’easter in eleven days: first rainy Riley, then windy Quinn, and now snow-dumping Skylar. Because of long-range weather forecasts, we knew to expect this third storm even as we braced for the second, so it feels like we’ve spent most of the past few weeks either preparing for, enduring, or cleaning up after a storm.

Overhead

Whenever a nor’easter arrives as predicted, I wonder how earlier generations handled surprise storms. Nowadays, we know days in advance to stock up on food, flashlights, and other essentials: one thing I got at the grocery store on Friday, for instance, was a new broom since I’d snapped the old one while clearing heavy, wet snow from our shrubs after Quinn. In the days before reliable weather forecasts, storms simply arrived, so you had to be perpetually prepared.

Along Richardson Field

Apart from the work and inconvenience of storm cleanup, I don’t mind snowy days. This week, ironically enough, is my spring break, so I’ve spent my “day off” walking the dog, vacuuming, and unpacking our monthly delivery of pet supplies: domestic chores I’d have to do with or without snow.

Aqueduct Trail

Walking the dog in a blizzard is, admittedly, a bit messier than on a dry day: for both our morning and afternoon dog-walks, I pulled on thick socks, rain pants, and a hooded windbreaker, and after each walk, I came inside, toweled off the dog, and peeled off my outer layers and hung them to dry.

Only the plows and intrepid dogwalkers are out

On snowy days, dog-walkers have the streets to ourselves, and it feels like heaven to come home, change into dry clothes, and sip hot tea, fueling one’s inner fires for the next round. Skylar has dumped well over a foot of snow, and the flakes are still falling. Tomorrow we’ll pull on our thick socks, rain pants, and hooded jackets to clean away snow all over again, and in the meantime we never stop dreaming of spring.

Late afternoon at the place of pines

Today after running errands and attending a meeting on campus, I came home and walked Toivo to the place of pines and back. You won’t find the place of pines on any map: it’s my name for a segment of the Cochituate Aqueduct that snakes behind suburban backyards, with a trail that follows a shady ravine carpeted with pine needles.

I started calling this particular segment of footpath “the place of pines” when I used to walk Reggie there on hot summer days. We’d walk to a place where the trail climbs up the ravine, then we’d return on a path that skirts its upper ledge.

It’s a short walk there and back; the whole time, you can see houses, garages, and treehouses in neighboring yards, and you can hear passing cars and planes overhead. The appeal of the place of pines isn’t that it’s wild and remote, but that it’s near and handy. During a spare half hour, you can walk to a place with tall trees, indulging in a brief break on a day without much time for breaking.

Ready to go outside

As Reggie grew older, our trips to the place of pines changed. First, he struggled to climb the ravine, so we’d walk the level part of the trail and then retrace our steps when the way got steep. Eventually, Reggie couldn’t walk even that far: our walks got shorter and slower, and eventually he couldn’t walk at all.

Walking Toivo to the place of pines today, there was a thought at the corner of my mind: someday, this spunky girl who tugs at her leash, eager to sniff and chase after squirrels, will be too old to make it this far. But today the way is smooth and easy, and it would be a shame to stay inside.

Almost spring

We’re already three-quarters of the way through February and almost halfway through the semester: almost, but not quite. I’m in my office at Framingham State and can hear a colleague lecturing in her classroom; outside, the grounds crew lumbers by in an all-terrain cart.

(Kinda) half-staff and snagged

It is warm outside, in the 60s; students stroll by in shirtsleeves, and one brave couple boldly spreads a blanket on the snowmelt-muddied quad. It’s a tentative foray into spring; winter has stepped off stage but has yet to leave the building.

I open my second-floor office window for a taste of almost-spring air, a fresh breeze trickling in like an elixir. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I spend my days inside a single building, walking from class to office then back to class again. The world outside might as well be a foreign country–a distant land–another planet entirely. What business do I have here in my brick-building perch with the fresh-aired world outside, with couples on their snowmelt-muddied blankets?

Almost spring

And yet, the gentle waft of spring breeze brings it back: memories of study sessions in the sun, the itch of grass blades on bare flesh, the kiss of cold earth. This morning I walked into our backyard and marveled to see the bare earth again–the same rusty mud as three days ago, before the intervening snow. Although I’ve seen it day after day, year after year, this morning I was stopped short by the inevitable earth, with ground the hue of dead-leaf dirt lightened by yellowed lawn and a tinge of thawed moss.

It’s too early for spring green–that won’t erupt for another month. But the earth today is different than it was last week much less last month. The earth is still sleeping deep in this almost-spring, but it’s felt the warmth of lengthening days strip away its snow coat, and it knows which way its axis lies.

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