Here’s the current weather in Calgary:
Friends in Vancouver send me messages that range between “poor you!” and “ha ha, sucker!” Here’s my response to the latter group:
I dislike the intense cold intensely. I rode my bike downtown on Tuesday, and I’m still trying to get my hands, feet, ears and other incidental extremities back up to operating temperature. I’m going to have to invest in some sort of balaclava if I’m going to keep cycling.
On the other hand, I’m enjoying the snow. After so many years of wet Vancouver snows (roughly one week of each winter), I’d forgotten how pleasant a dry, powdery accumulation can be. Thrice today, I have shovelled every piece of exposed surrounding concrete: my driveway and footpath, the city footpaths in front of my house and the houses on my left and right, and the footpath of the elderly guy next door (although if I don’t get out there fast enough the elderly guy shovels mine before I can get to it – we’re competing for the first heart attack on the block.)
That I actually like shovelling snow is probably kind of atypical (but then, I do aspire gladly to the atypical). Shovelling is good exercise, somewhat meditative, useful, and, like many repetitive labours that aren’t engaged in at the behest of a corporate overlord, provides one with a sense of satisfaction for a job well done. Like the construction of a mandala of sand, the task of shovelling is frequently engaged in with the expectation that one’s work will be obliterated by further snowfall. From shovelling comes mindful detachment and acceptance.
This affection for shovelling is not new, just rediscovered. As a child in Winnipeg, shovelling was a gift. It allowed escape from the house when options were few, and provided periods of highly-desired solitude and independence. The pavements were my territory. Early in the morning, in the wee hours of the night, during driving snowstorms that smothered the city and brought commerce to a standstill, I would be out cleaning the walks, the driveways, sometimes even the surrounding streets. In the dark of night, the silence of the snow, my metal shovel scraping across the concrete was often the only sound.
We lived in a duplex on a large corner lot, so there were a lot of surfaces to shovel. Often, during heavy snows, the place I started at would be buried again, or drifted over, by the time I finished. Other times, during lighter falls, I would retire to a snow cave in the back yard that I had dug into a drift, or an igloo I’d constructed from blocks of snow compressed in a cardboard box. I’d lay back in my cave and enjoy the total silence, contemplate my sadness, and watch the glow of my cigarette float in the light darkness.
I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen. As happens with working-class boys forced to endure the excruciating trials of puberty with little or no social or cultural support (or faced with social or cultural sabotage), shovelling snow was a natural anti-anxiety drug, an outlet for surplus energy, somewhere to direct obsessive angst.
Sometimes, when I was done at my house, I contracted my services out to others, for a price. The best one was a lawyer who’d packed the snow on his driveway down for a week with the wheels of his car. For a couple of hours of diligently chipping this glacier down to bare concrete I earned $13. It doesn’t sound like much, but in 1976 it was good money: minimum wage was $2.70 an hour.
Even with money, though, it wasn’t as satisfying as shovelling my own walks. Like turning a garden in the spring – spade by spade, row by row, until the whole thing is an even patch of fresh soil ready to accept seeds, shovelling is best when one gets to enjoy the fruits of one’s labours, whether that means eating produce that’s subsequently grown, or just sitting before the window in a chair with a cup of tea, admiring a patch of concrete that, the rest of the year, I’d rather wasn’t there at all.