There’s something about snowstorms.
Maybe it’s a result of growing up in New England, but when storm warnings hit, it’s an excuse to burrow in. When snow begins falling, everything slows. Cars creep along white streets, school gets canceled, and work gets pushed aside. Life becomes frozen in time. Plans and schedules cease to matter, it’s time to hunker down and watch as Mother Nature wear herself out.
When it’s daylight, snowstorms are one thing but after nightfall, darkness hides the growing blanket as it muffles out everything. Daybreak inevitably comes sparkling blue, and everything lays transformed.
That’s when the digging out begins.
We had one of those storms last week. It started early, and I hid inside as I usually do, fully dormant until the next day. When I finally left home, I came upon a woman scraping her car with one of those tiny ice scrapers meant for morning frost — barely larger than her hand, it was insufficient for a foot of powder.
I jogged over with my extended-handle brush/scraper. “Can I help?” I said, my scraper already digging into the drifts covering her passenger-side windshield.
“Thanks,” she said. “You don’t have to.”
“I know,” I said, smiling. “It’ll only take a minute.”
That’s the other part about winter storms I love: They change the rules of engagement. They force us out of solitary lives and encourage interaction. In a modern world, it’s easy to move undetected and anonymous, but winter snow rips us out of hibernation. It bring us out in front of one another.
I have a friend who moved from New England to California, where the weather is always sunny, warm and beautiful. “People don’t talk to each other,” she told me. “They don’t have to. Nothing forces you. You can get by on your own, no one ever has to call a friend because their door’s snowed shut or their car got buried by the plow. It makes life easier, but it also makes it more isolating.”
Community, by force of weather.
But storms offer more than that. It’s more than the neighbor who plows you out, or the friend willing to watch your kids so you can go to work. Snow transforms the rules that govern our daily life, leaving them meaningless, arbitrary markers. Norms go out the window, and in their absence the best of us comes out.
Speed limits, for example: The one time I feel least at risk of getting a speeding ticket is during a snowstorm. If you are able to keep your car on the road and avoid collision, you’ve won. You passed the test. No one comes close to 45 mph then, so why even pay attention to what the sign says? The “rules of the road” cease to be the rigid and dogmatic statues we are accustomed to. They are lost guidelines, so meaningless and out of reach they become laughable. Going 5 mph might be too fast, 15 mph leaves us in a ditch and 45 mph is nothing but numbers.
But the police are out on these nights. They are often out in force. But the snow transforms them from law enforcers to public assisters. They help us dig out, give pushes or call tows. This is undoubtedly what most of members of the police force signed up to do in the first place, to help people, but in the muddled mess of life they spend more time telling people what they can’t do than offering the friendly assist.
Snowstorms, however, recalibrate. They slow us down. They remind us there is no hurry, and in remembering that we remember generosity, thoughtfulness. Our police get to be what they always wanted to be for a night, and so do the rest of us. We remember we don’t live alone, that sometimes we need our neighbors, and sometimes we need to be neighbors ourselves.
I wonder what part snowstorms played in early democracy, that foundational American institution. What would New Hampshire town meetings look life if they could skip the harsh winter, if the democratic congregation was held in June, the summer sun stretching until 9 p.m.? With nothing to keep us indoors would we make time to self-govern? Would we abandon civic duty to take an evening walk among the fireflies? The early colonies further south lacked this democratic practice.
The town hall is a New England contribution, one perhaps tied to snow — because there are no luxuries in March. This is when storms often rage most furiously. And in a storm there is nothing more comforting than sitting in a room packed with neighbors dedicated to enduring the same elements, the same harsh wind.
I think of town meetings past when snow blanketed every street and yet conversations continued in gymnasiums and town halls over how to spend communal tax revenue. This is the time for collective decisions, a time when choices on governing are informed by the vulnerable nature of rural life. Democracy is a game best played as a team, and we blessed with days, December through spring, that remind us of exactly who makes our team.
Much of America doesn’t think about it that way. But then again, most of America has never enjoyed one of our snowstorms.
This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.