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Not too long ago, I moved back into my childhood home in Calgary’s northwest. The house has a rectangular driveway with four shallow steps leading to the front door. Before I moved back, I was living in southern Japan, and before that, I was in Vancouver where I went to university.
I hadn’t encountered snow in earnest for years. I’d be reminded of it when I came home for Christmas, but it was a tangential acknowledgement. “Oh yeah, it snows here.”
This winter I was forced to confront the snow from my youth. Had six years away really erased the backdrop of my upbringing? It had. As it turns out, existing for years in clement weather lulls you into security you soon take for granted.
After Calgary’s fifth or sixth snowfall, I was reminded. Recollections of standing on the frigid C-Train platform after school, trudging up the hill behind my house that was continuously covered in ice and all the times I was stuck in a 360-degree blizzard. The feeling of being encompassed – floating in vacuity, where all you can see is grey, white and an infinite flurry of descending snowflakes.
Ultimately, the truest reminder was the daily one: the shovelling of snow from our driveway.
While I was away, my mom had hired a snow-removal service. She had fallen ill, and couldn’t keep up. I hadn’t thought much of the work snow necessitated until my return. I confidently asserted I would do all the shovelling from now on, and she could cancel the service. The year before had, apparently, yielded less snow and I impractically believed this would be the case again.
Of course, it wasn’t and snow came frequently. I had started a new job in the fall and had recently ended a long-term relationship. The beginning of the snowfalls seemed to be timed with all of this, a strange true-life pathetic fallacy. In the mornings I’d wake up early to shovel the sidewalk and driveway. When I came home at night I would repeat the ritual. Sometimes the snow would be light, dry and easy. Other times, heavy and laden with moisture. I’d grab the yellow shovel in our garage and hurriedly heave the snow in heaps on either side of the driveway. When I couldn’t be bothered, I left it but would be angry with myself later, as the car had packed down the snow, which stuck mercilessly to the pavement. I tried to outsmart the chore, anticipating sunny days, which could potentially melt it all before I had to don my parka and gloves. Occasionally it would melt, but the temperatures would soon drop again, freezing it to ice, making the entire drive a slippery rink.
It was an annoying chore, but one collectively shared by the neighbours in our cul-de-sac. The man across from us (the envy to all) consistently had his driveway shovelled in straight neat lines. When I went out in the mornings his would be shovelled, and when I returned at night it would be cleared. I never saw him, giving the impression I had witnessed a magic trick. In contrast, the neighbour to our right seldom shovelled. The one on the left did but only in the evenings. We had all found ways to manage or not manage the conditions. Once, when I was shovelling in the dark after work, a man walked by with his dog.
“Too bad it doesn’t shovel itself, eh?” he commented. I had heartily agreed, and thought, that was the most quintessential Canadian observation. Yes, too bad it didn’t disappear, that this white stuffs from the heavens couldn’t roll itself up and out of my way.
Time went on. Temperatures dropped further and we settled into Calgary’s formidable winter months. As the number of times I shovelled increased, something changed. I was less irritable about the habitual responsibility. Sure, I would hem and haw and make hackneyed comments about the weather when small talk required it. However, as the months went by, snow shovelling became less provoking; something completed and not talked about. Like brushing your teeth or drinking water. As I pushed snow into the towering mounds surrounding the driveway, the feeling of anger I once felt about the snow itself, life, politics, loosened its hold. The small action of pushing a shovel in parallel lines, lifting my arms and releasing, allowed me to focus on the minute. The centimetres, the flakes, the dulled scraping sound I made as I worked. The layers of snow created stillness across the city, a collective calm after being swathed by weather we could never control.
Our neighbourhood is rampant with jackrabbits and one always appears either at dawn or dusk while I am shovelling. After darting away from my noise, they will pause a safe distance away. Their bodies alert, listening and looking, at me, maybe, or simply their surroundings, before swiftly going on their way. Vanishing until the next time we meet.
When I am shovelling I forget about my anxieties, what I desperately want out of life, the people I miss from my past, grief, worry, triumphs, lows. These all fade away and I think of nothing. For 15 minutes of my day, I am just a person, clearing their driveway because it is winter in Canada. The snow won’t stop, it’s just something we all have to do.
Mormei Zanke lives in Calgary.
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