Outside the library doors, the snow is giving body to the wind. With all the delicateness of each flake and the way the multitude of them looks like the sweeping and folding of a silk scarf, there is power there. It blurs the line between earth and sky, it cocoons you, but it can also slurp you off the road, kill you with disorientation and cold. I step out toward the campus shuttle, and I can’t tell where the sidewalk ends and the road begins. I feel along with my boot tips until I reach the island of warmth of the shuttle. It fishtails over the road toward our apartment, and I worry about Josh driving home in our rust-bucket car with its summer tires.
Back at our apartment, I sit on the exercise ball and stare out the window. The evergreens that serve as a privacy shield between the apartment building and the houses on the other side, the same kind that are always in cemeteries, sway like a line of hooded monks in prayer. I remember when I was little and my brother and I would go out to play. It was one of my favorite things to lie down in the snow and look up into the snow. The flakes began as flat whiteness, then a blur of indiscriminate motion, like when you stare hard into the dark, then they would appear, tiny and always coming at you, like shooting through stars, until nothing else seemed to exist. The important thing was the silence, the noticing and listening.
To be still.
Snow, even in its power and force and flurry of motion, creates stillness. It’s partly how it pads the earth, partly how it muffles all sound, partly because it draws the sky in close, and maybe partly, even mostly, because it stops us in our tracks. We like to think, we humans, that we can control everything. Or at least that if we did, everything would be better. In the second Back to the Future movie, when “Doc Brown” gets out of the DeLorean in the year 2015 it is raining. He checks his watch, and the rain stops right on schedule. If humans haven’t learned to control the weather, they can predict it to the second. Personally, I don’t think we’ll ever figure out how to control weather, or even predict it with total accuracy. Snowstorms like this remind us that we aren’t in control, that there are forces bigger than ourselves. Even in Minnesota, where we take pride in pretending to be above the elements, we are forced to shut down schools and businesses when snowstorms hit or when the temperature drops to forty-below wind chill. It reminds us of our humanity.
I’ve forgotten how to be still.
Even now, watching out my window as night descends and the flashing lights of snowplows pass in my peripheral, I do not go out again to lie down and listen. It’s not just the bother of dawning snow pants and jacket or that I would mar the pristineness of it. It’s that part of me is afraid I will stare up into the white, with the trees shifting beside me and the distant roar of the road, and I will realize I don’t know how anymore. My mind cannot quiet itself. I used to stop and notice and listen. When I was thirteen and fourteen, I spent hours on end lying in my crab apple tree in a hammock I fashioned out of a bed sheet and some rope, staring at the interplay of light and shadow on the leaves or the morphing of clouds. It was the only thing that filled me with life. Now, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve truly been still in the last six years.
My first year at the University of Northwestern, I took a Writing of Place class. The teacher constantly talked about paying attention. “Don’t hydroplane,” she’d tell us. Yes. Yes, this is what I want. I want to pay attention, to listen, be still.
But how do I be still in a world that spins 1,040 miles per hour?