The other day I woke up to a bleak, cold, overcast, rainy and snowy morning. My mood followed suit. I didn’t feel normal.
Temperatures outside hovered between 32 and 33 degrees, as if mother nature was undecided whether to ice my neighborhood completely or just leave it wet with slushy snow. The porch steps froze with a thin layer of ice. This meant my comings and goings for the day, usually uneventful, would be a challenge. Quite literally, I’d have to watch my every step. We aging folk have an atavistic dread of falling.
This recent storm had been a two-and-a half-day affair: sometimes sleet, sometimes rain, sometimes snow, all happening in fits and starts. I was never sure of what was coming next.
It seems to me, as of late, that the world has been in a tentative state. It’s been unsettled for some time: we’re never sure of just what’s coming next. First there was the onset of the coronavirus followed by a frantic search for vaccines. Then violence and disorder surrounded the election process, followed by an irrational insistence that the election results were rigged. All this happening not in a smooth and straight trajectory, but in fits and starts. I’ve found this unsettling.
My fear of falling makes me reluctant to leave the house for my studio; the treachery of icy steps holds me hostage. The simple luxury of just coming in and going out of the house, without giving it a second thought, was shelved for most of the day. The world that I knew just before the storm, as it had been before COVID-19, was a normal world as I thought about it then. Now it is chaotic. But, then what is normal, anyway? We usually mean by ‘normal’ something that feels familiar or predictable. Whenever I think things are normal they usually don’t last that long. Sometimes I think normal is a fiction, a kind of illusion we get from hindsight. However illusory, while it lasts, ‘normal’ can be comforting.
In addition to the bad weather, there has been the virus. It has restricted my comings and goings and upended what I thought was normal. In my engagements with other people, once arranged casually with an email or a phone call, I negotiate now selectively, and with great caution ––I wonder who will be a danger to me or will I be to others; who’s infected with the virus and who isn’t. There’s chronic uncertainty with every breath I take. Because of a prevailing fear of the coronavirus, like my fear of falling on ice, I know I’m living reactively.
The omnipresence of the coronavirus feels confining. Snow and ice don’t help make it better. I once inhaled the air freely, unobstructed, naturally, in shops or outdoors. I now outfit myself like a robber who goes about his business furtively, thoroughly masked to ensure his safety. I long for uncompromised air (the blowback from in my mask signals a breath worse than I thought. Breath fogs my glasses, too, obscuring my vision). I also yearn for the ice to melt so I don’t have to measure my steps or for the measure of my days.
Snow days, as you may have surmised, don’t do it for me. Snow’s aesthetic properties are also lost to me. Snow isn’t as magical as it once was during my childhood.
It’s when I see squirrels in the snow romping and cavorting around, I confess I’m reminded of sledding, skating and making snow men at Marling’s Pond when I was a kid. The squirrels look like they’re having fun. I did too, then. I wasn’t afraid of falling. Squirrels, of course, never fall. In fact, falling off the sled or slipping on the ice, then, was half the fun of being in the snow. Getting up off the ground (or ice) on my own was an option back then.
There’s a smell I associate with my boyhood days playing in snow; wet wool. I recall it fondly. Winter clothes today are made from synthetics which when wet, don’t smell differently than when they are dry. One other property of wool in the snow: when we came back to the house and went in the foyer to take our snow suits off, small patches of snow clung stubbornly here and there to wool clothing. We plucked them off like thistles.
The day’s weather ended as bleakly as it began, but I can happily report that my attitude, at least for that day, died a natural death. I got back to my own self again, normal.
The ice melted sufficiently so I could make it safely to my studio. That lifted my spirits. From the window, looking out onto the cove, I watched the geese for a while. They paddled around the cove slowly, effortlessly, in concert, as if choreographed; they moved together as though one body. I suspected they were searching for the warmest spot. They were uncharacteristically quiet. Not one goose honked as if the freezing weather had taken their breath away. They seemed take the weather in their stride, confident that whatever may be coming next for them, they’d know how to stay afloat . . . and remain normal.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.