Without the convenient distractions of television or the Internet in the aftermath of the freakishly early and obscenely destructive winter storm, lines of poetry and scenes from various books flooded my brain, an unfortunate side effect, I suppose, of my liberal arts education.
I was in a state of physiological denial in the days leading up to the storm. I keep up with the weather slightly more than what might be considered normal, so I knew on an intellectual level that something bad was coming. But I still couldn’t get myself to find my snow shovel, or to replace the one that had served me valiantly last year before breaking in the line of duty. The air conditioners, comfortably perched in my windows, had nothing to fear from me, and my winter jacket lay undisturbed in the attic. My body, hip to the rhythms of the seasons, refused to accept that significant snow could hit before Halloween.
The parade of quotes began on Sunday morning, when I woke up before the rest of my house and tackled the job of shoveling our long, sloping driveway. As I shoveled, a line from Dr. Seuss popped into my head: “And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so?”
It was cold but sunny outside, and the work warmed me up. I trudged up the driveway buoyed by the feeling of flinging that last shovelful of snow and grateful for the warmth that the task had provided me, but when I walked inside the house, I realized another cruel aspect of the snow storm: this was most likely the warmest I would be all day. To make matters worse, everyone else in my house was still asleep. Robert Hayden from “Those Winter Sundays,” “Sundays too my father got up early/and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, /then with cracked hands that ached/from labor in the weekday weather made/banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.”
(I’ll admit it, that’s when my self-pity peaked.)
At work on Sunday, where my job was to get messages out to people who didn’t have power from a place that didn’t have power, phones, or Internet connections, I spent a lot of time in my car, charging my smart phone and worrying about whether I had enough gas. The book that came to mind was one I read in elementary school called Snow Bound (which was later turned into an “After School Special”), about a boy and a girl who get stuck in a blizzard in their Volkswagen Beetle. I don’t remember all of the details, but I’m pretty sure they made it out alive, because back then teachers didn’t assign many depressing books. I remembered that they would run the engine only 5 or 10 minutes every hour to conserve gas, and that they had very little food. I sympathized with them on both counts.
I spent Saturday night after the power went out listening to the crackle and pop of tree limbs succumbing to the weight of the snow, a cold and lightless fireworks display. The first night, it still felt like an adventure. By Sunday night, the novelty had definitely worn off, and that’s when I had my great books revelation. A Thoreau quote popped in my head, “it is only when we forget all of our learning that we begin to know.” That spoke right to the heart of the problem with a liberal arts education like mine, too much time spent with a nose in a book and not enough time spent living. Of course, living without heat or electricity wasn’t a lot of fun. But it brought into clear focus for me for the first time the meaning of another famous quote that danced through my head from the moment we lost power: Thomas Hobbes’ observation that in the natural state of things, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Another way to put it is, “life sucks, and then you die.” But it sucks a lot less when you have heat and electricity.
And it’s not even winter yet. As Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame said, “I like these cold, gray winter days. Days like these let you savor a bad mood.”
Andrew Shelffo is a writer and blogger who sometimes finds himself with too much time on his hands.