Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Let it snow II: Fire and ice

I was still sleeping the other morning when my boy, in his Thomas the Tank Engine jammies, crawled up next to me and stared out the window at the falling pre-dawn snow. "Mom?" he said. "A lot of people have died already. Right?"

I open my eyes and look at his still-sleepy face. "Right," I said.

He takes this in. I thought I should probably think of something to say, but what? I want to tell him we're immortal, that (to crib from Kurt Vonnegut) everything is beautiful and nothing hurts here on this planet. That it's a perpetually snowy, sleepy, jammied-up and cozy-with-mom place. I want to tell him not to think about these kinds of things, that it's forbidden until he's at least 21, or he'll be grounded.

"Why do you ask?" I finally say.

"There have been a lot of crashes and fires," he quickly replies.

"Yes," I say. "there have been."

He looks at me and smiles his 5-year-old smile. "But it's okay." And he tackles me.

Jack's crash-and-burn gear

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Let it snow ... please

Here's an essay from last year on snow shoveling, which hopefully will help remind January what season it is.

SHOVELING GAME

Winter’s first snow is a happy magic—shimmery flakes falling from the black sky, sparkly white covering up barren grass. Last year, when the first flurries descended from heaven, my 3-year-old son and assorted relatives fell over each other trying to get out and play. We scrambled for mittens. We threw snowballs, made a teetering snowman, stuck out our tongues for flakes. We fell backward into the powder and made angels. Later we went to bed, cozy against the cold, listening for snowplows, snug and exhilarated by winter’s white.

The next morning, the newspaper skidded onto the white-white-white sidewalk. Inside was a handwritten note: “Please shovel the walk.”

Oh.

That.

Each season has its magic. Each season also has its chores. Now, shoveling shouldn’t be difficult but I’d never actually done it in any meaningful or comprehensive way. It was as if I’d had a get-out-of-jail-free card: Someone else had always cleared the paths. Until now. So--still giddy with snow fever—my son, Jackson, and I headed to the store to buy shovels.

He zeroed in on a pint-sized orange model and was off, pushing it up and down the aisle, making snowplow noises as I stared at the grownup options. Scoop or shovel? Bent or straight handle? Metal or plastic edge? How hard could this be? “You’re going to need a metal edge with all the snow we get,” said a fellow shopper offered.

My son drove his shovel back and forth, unfazed by the choices. He gets it, I thought.

“Don’t forget pellets,” another shopper said. “You don’t want ice.”

I grabbed pellets and a sober gray model with a metal edge and, as my son snowplowed his orange shovel to the checkout, calculated just how much snow we really do get: something like twelve feet a year, give or take. Take the cubic weight (I guessed oh seven pounds) and multiply it by all the walkways and driveways, paths and porches. Well, the winter’s scary math equaled something like, oh, 25,000 pounds of snow, all for me and my shovel to push around.

That night, I parked the shovel on the porch and planned to call the neighbor kid first thing in the morning.

And that night, we got a ton of snow. My son is a boy who dreams of machinery—bucket trucks, front-end loaders, firetrucks. Useful machines, made to do useful things. That night he dreamed of his very own useful tool, his new orange shovel. He woke and sped down the stairs and pulled his boots on over his footie pajamas and told me to hurry please hurry.

“We have to shubbel,” he said urgently. I thought about it for a nanosecond.

“I have to drink coffee.”

“We have to shubbel.”

The universe was commanding him. And I thought, why not? I could go out on a blue-sky sun-bright morning and watch him shovel.

Jackson zigzagged his orange shovel down the drive, then looped back and completed his “racetrack.” He pulled his tricycle out of the garage and positioned himself on the track. As he pedaled, his tires lodged in snow. He pushed and on his pedals, inching forward on the thin track. “Here,” I said, setting my coffee down and grabbing my shovel. “I’ll make it bigger.”

I widened his road and he pedaled like mad, circling and circling, delirious as only toddlers on trikes can be. Then he got up and grabbed his shovel and said, “Come on mom.” He blazed more roads. And I followed. From the backyard to the front. Down the city sidewalk. Up half the neighbors’ walks in our downtown Traverse City block. He cut the trail and I widened it. Then he ran for his Radio Flyer tricycle, and as he pedaled around his mini-autobahn, I sprinkled pellets so ice wouldn’t build up. The drive was nearly clear, so I swiped it a few times to finish up.

The next day we did the same thing. And the next. I never got around to calling the neighbor kid. Day after day, week after week, shoveling became part of our winter rhythms. I woke up happy about going outside into the freezing sunrise with my hot coffee, squinting at the winter dawn. There was something Zen-serene about the pure motions of scraping and pushing, the mindless repetitive movement. Back and forth, tiny diamonds. A red tricycle in snow.

We’d push the snow into a pile that became Jackson’s igloo, with walls and windows, and he’d invite me in for pretend pancakes. We raced our shovels down sidewalks to see who was fastest. We’d throw snowballs at icicles. But mostly we were quiet in the morning, clearing the way together.
As those twelve feet of snow piled up—to my knees, to my waist, above Jackson’s head—the paths became more and more distinct. Soon they were the only passageway from home to the world, our only way out.

And one winter morning, the newspaper skidded up the walk. Inside was a handwritten note: “Nice job on the shoveling.”

Exhale

School starts back up tomorrow and tonight, my boy just couldn't get to sleep. For two hours, he tossed and turned, calling me upstairs to tell me he'd found a solution for the Christmas tree (take it to the chipper truck behind the library tomorrow at 3:30...???), asking for a drink, wanting me to cuddle him. So I did. We sang some songs, which only made things worse--he got up and started dancing in Vogue-like poses to the old Christmas tune, "Hey, Ho, Nobody Home."

"The cough syrup must be keeping you awake," I said. "Lay down. Just relax. Close your eyes."

He tried. He really did.

"I know," he said, finally. "I'll just lay here and breathe everything out of me. Except my name."