Saturday, January 23, 2016

Zen and the Art of Clearing Snow

No matter how many ice cubes I flushed down the toilet and no matter whether I wore my pajamas inside out, I knew the Snow Fairies weren’t going to come in the night like Santa Claus and clear away the snow from our driveway and stairs. I knew that God had given that job to me, since He kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. I guess He figured I needed the workout. As I gazed out onto the white landscape that was God’s Fitness Center, a feeling of dread filled my stomach. I sighed as I pulled on my old khaki pants and the gators over my hiking boots. I could already hear the shovel scraping where my husband had already gotten started. It was time to do my part. It doesn’t do to look at the big picture, to take a mental panorama of the entire landscape, noting the details of how far up the snow is drifting the side of the porch and how deep the cars are buried. It doesn’t do to make an assessment of exactly how much snow needs to be cleared (I don’t like the word shovel) except in the beginning. In the beginning, I have to know what I’m dealing with. I must plan for the end game. I need to calculate how long I’ll need to be outside and whether or not I’ll need a breakfast break. (Turns out, I didn’t.) Once I take the shovel in hand and start digging, I choose to focus only on the pile I’m working on. Scoop some snow of the top and set it out of the way. Scoop another layer. Scrape the last layer. Move to the side and repeat. Like anything else, there’s a technique to clearing snow. The goal is to work as quickly as possible, move as much snow as possible, using as little energy as possible. With the right technique and the right tools, the job can be almost pleasant enough to enjoy the billions of tiny, delicate crystals piled in waist high mounds in the yard. “Chop wood, carry water,” I’m thinking with every pile I send over the porch railing. It doesn’t have to be drudgery. It’s just something I have to do before breakfast, so I’m focused on getting it done. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Confront the difficult while it is still easy,” and “Accomplish the great task with a series of small steps.” It’s like Zen and the Art of Clearing Snow. I found rhythm, a gracefulness of movement as I allowed myself to flow from one snow pile to the next, not moving quickly but not moving slowly. I was being careful not to over exert myself. I felt dreadfully out of condition. This could be the beginning of getting back into shape if only I pace myself. I will find a silver lining that is not the winding sheet of wind blown flakes weaving around the house. Only I was partnered with almost thirteen-year-old daughter, who had been tasked with clearing the steps to the street. I’d cleared the porch and was planning to start helping my husband clear the driveway. Then he suggested that I help her instead, which was good, because she desperately needed help. She had waded down to the foot of the steps and had proceeded to spend many moments staring into space or making snowballs. I could see that she wasn’t making much headway, so I picked my way down in her footsteps to give her a snow-clearing refresher. “Clear the walkway better, because otherwise this will freeze into a solid sheet of ice,” I told her. “Watch your back. Your back! YOUR BACK! No! Bend your knees like this when you lift the snow to protect your back. No! Don’t swing the shovel half way around the opposite direction you’re going. That’s a waste of energy. Don’t throw it! Now, see how it’s rolling back down to your feet. You don’t want to be like Sisyphus.” “Who’s he?” “He’s the guy who rolled the boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again.” “Well, he was being punished by the gods.” “You don’t want to feel like you’re being punished. Do it like this. Here, let me show you.” “I already feel like I’m being punished. I hate this!” “That’s not helpful. Here, you do it. Scoop and—KNEES! Bend your knees! Slow down and do it right!” I was trying to show her how to do it as easily as possible, to go into the Zen zone and find her center. She gave off the energy of someone who was trying to screw up badly enough to get sent inside. She was trying to avoid the lesson and avoid the work. I gave an exasperated sigh and sent her off to my husband, who does not suffer her attitude. In the end, she came back to the stairs and I went back to the top to work my way down to her. Scoop. Knees. Lift. Dump. Repeat. I blinked, and our shovels were touching.