I guess the winter of 2013 has answered the poet’s eternal question: “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”
Here they are!
The relentless snowfall this winter and its attendant shoveling, skidding, and slipping have been enough to test the patience of the most serene stoic. It’s been 19 weeks since the first measureable flakes in Boston, and we all feel a bit like Sisyphus — only with a giant snowball in place of the rock. Every struggling crocus shoot and hungry sparrow join every Greater Bostonian in aching for the snows to melt, for the forgiving sun and lengthening days of spring. Me too. But before we bid farewell to winter’s discontents, let’s pause to consider the lessons of the season.
Shoveling the drifts is arduous and cold, but it also can be a meditation on the tension in society between the individual and the community. Especially for those of us living in the city, with on-street parking, shoveling out after a storm highlights the border between private and public space — and I’m not even talking about the peculiar Boston ritual of requisitioning a rectangular patch of city street for 48 hours with a broken chair.
Consider the typical morning after a significant snowfall. You spend perhaps an hour clearing a path from your private door to the street, excavating your private car from its white encasement, and along comes the municipal snow plow to wall you back in again with public slush. It’s enough to make a good liberal curse the government’s intrusion on our personal liberty. Why, this cavalier nullification of private enterprise by the jackboots of the DPW is nothing short of a taking. Alert the Supreme Court!
But of course, plowing the public street is an exercise in utilitarianism: providing the greatest good for the greatest number. This is supposed to be an ethical principle, if I remember my college philosophy. So better take a breath and smile at the snowplow. We all have to get to work.
Besides, there are more felicitous examples of the public/private divide in winter. I am thinking of the communal snow blower. In our neighborhood, there are three owners who take responsibility for plowing the sidewalks for the rest of us: Bob, in his “first responder” orange jumpsuit; Teresa, with her acrid-smelling diesel model; and Bernadette, who wields the deflector chute like a weapon. All of them are angels of mercy.
I love the share-ware philosophy behind the community Toro and wonder why it can’t be more widely applied to other tools we use only occasionally. What if there were just two or three lawnmowers on our block, or a few hedge clippers? I attended a “green living” lecture recently and learned that the total number of minutes an ordinary power drill is in operation over its lifetime is . . . three. Does everyone really need to own a personal power drill when we have neighbors?
Let’s face it, though: If I were to cut the neighbor’s lawn unbidden, or weed-whack his berm, or clip his hedges, it might be taken for an act of aggression, if not eccentricity. But there is something liberating about a snowstorm that allows us to offer — and receive — gestures that cross the unofficial boundaries we observe other times of the year.
Blizzards are mini-disasters that allow the normal rules of behavior to be suspended. Children stay home from school. Pedestrians walk down the middle of the street. Diets are violated with impunity as hot chocolate is served all around. For all its destruction, I still fondly remember the Blizzard of 1978, which shut down Logan Airport for days, and gave us clean, quiet air.
I had chosen that February afternoon in 1978 to move from Somerville to East Boston, and only succeeded in hauling over the true essentials — bed, stereo, cats — before I became marooned by the storm. I still have some of the dishes my new Eastie neighbors gave me to tide me over. Was it ordinary human kindness that gave rise to such generosity, or the magic of snowstorms?
Here’s the truth: Even this winter will be gone soon enough. But we’ll still be a community of neighbors. So make sure you share your power tools.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.